Apocalypse Soon? a Reflection on the Anniversaries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

by Jim Forest

In 1951, the year I turned ten, one didn’t have to be a grown-up to be aware that radioactive particles were in the air. Invisible cancer-causing debris was being carried by the winds from the deserts of Nevada to the far corners of the Earth, and before long was being mixed with the fallout of Soviet, French and British nuclear tests. Radioactive strontium 90 was making its way from mushroom clouds into the food chain, arriving finally in every bottle of milk.

I knew from close range what nuclear weapons could do to those targeted by them. In 1951 two young Japanese women, survivors of the atom bomb that had been dropped on Nagasaki on the 9th of August 1945, arrived in my home town, Red Bank, New Jersey. They were house guests of the local Methodist minister, Roger Squire, and his family. A national peace group had arranged for plastic surgeons in New York to treat some of the people who had been burned by the blasts. The Squires were providing hospitality for two of them. Thanks to my mother’s occasional attendance at Methodist services, I saw these very poised women sitting side-by-side in a pew near the front of the church, their damaged faces hidden behind silk veils. I couldn’t stop staring. Though I had seen a few post-explosion photos of the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, being in the same room with these two women bought home to me in a more intimate way the human dimension of war, the effects of nuclear weapons, and the fact that the victims of war were rarely those responsible for war. I was also old enough to be aware that taking Japanese victims of America’s atom bombs into one’s home was not something that all Americans would appreciate. In the ice age of the Cold War, such hospitality required courage.

the ruins of St Mary’s Cathedral in Nagasaki

As a kid I read a great deal of science fiction, some of which described our planet devastated by nuclear war. Meanwhile, in the real world, the darkest fantasies of science fiction seemed to be unfolding, political leaders hurrying to make our planet into a radioactive wasteland in which few would be left to bury the dead and the achievements of civilization turned to ash and rubble. We were marching into a blast furnace — not Apocalypse Now but Apocalypse Soon. The nuclear tests going on in Nevada were a death notice.

It was in 1951 that our first television was installed in the living room, its tiny screen not much bigger than a sardine tin. One of the occasional “news specials” allowed us to join the live audience witnessing America’s open-air nuclear test explosions. Cameras, television crews, reporters, scientists and military brass were shielded in concrete bunkers miles from the blast site. Views of the desert were interlaced with interviews with those in the shelter until the countdown began. Ten nine eight seven six… There was at last the word “zero” followed by a split second of silence, then the screen going white followed by the spectacle of an expanding transparent globe of light and fire that gave birth to a seething column of smoke exploding upward in which a kind of fire never seen before 1945 was rotating within the mushroom cloud.

For one of the tests, buildings had been constructed at varying distances from ground zero, with blast-protected high-speed cameras at strategic points. Soon afterward television viewers saw in slow motion the blast’s impact on houses not unlike our own. A two-story white clapboard house turned black on its blast-facing side before the shock wave struck. The structure, as if made of paper-thin glass, was in a flash torn to fragments while the splinters were catapulted away from ground zero by a wind far beyond hurricane strength.

In 1951 there were sixteen U.S. nuclear tests, in 1952 there were nine, and the next year eleven — thirty-six in three years, on average one per month.

While I doubt I watched all of the explosions, in 1953 nuclear war was enough on my mind for me to build a foot-high model of a mushroom cloud using a cardboard tube for the upward shaft and a cardboard disk for the horizontal top layer plus cotton wool sprayed with red, yellow and orange paint. Made for the annual New Jersey Science Fair, this was placed in a homemade wooden display case along with panels of text explaining the destructive effects of a nuclear explosion, augmented by extracts from John Hershey’s book, Hiroshima. My exhibit won no award — it wasn’t a science experiment — but it seemed to me an achievement that my own quiet protest against nuclear war had found a place in the fair. Few fair-goers passed it by.

Ever aware that death by nuclear war was more than likely and possibly not far off, in the fall of 1961 I tacked a magazine cover to the wall of my one-room apartment in Manhattan that was emblazoned with just four words: Get ready to die. It was the verbal equivalent of having, like a medieval monk, a skull close at hand that silently sang out the ascetic message, Momento mori.

In the early sixties each time I heard New York’s air-raid sirens being tested I expected to be shredded into radioactive particles. The sirens would begin their coordinated howling, the blasts punctuated by silences so severe the city suddenly seemed desert-like in stillness. Stunned, momentarily paralyzed by the significance of the noise, I would stop whatever I was doing and stand at a window, waiting for death. There was no need to think about a hiding place. Even were there a massive barrier against the blast and radiation, the blast’s firestorm would consume all the oxygen. Last moments are too important to be wasted on panic. As someone who believed in the resurrection and hoped in God’s mercy, these moments seemed best used for prayer.

But each time the sirens ceased their doomsday howls. There was no sudden radiance brighter than a thousand suns. At such times I felt like an airline passenger setting shaking feet upon solid ground after a no-wheels landing in emergency foam spread out across the runway. Our lives had ended and been given back. We had in our hands another chance to free ourselves from a “security” founded upon the preparation of nuclear holocaust. Another chance for figs to grow from thistles.

I’m now 76. In my lifetime we’ve come in arm’s reach of nuclear war several times. It’s a miracle that no nuclear weapon has been used in war since 1945. For many people this is seen as proof that deterrence works. In the short measure of human life and memory, and in a time crowded with other disasters, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are a long way off. We have begun to count on generals and their subordinates restraining themselves from pressing the nuclear button. We imagine that, for the first time in human history, weapons are being produced and made ready for use — are in fact poised for use with thousands of people in a constant state of readiness to release them — yet will never be used. May it be so. Yet one has to ask the question: has human nature changed since Hiroshima? Do we have to search far to find people who see reality in purely abstract ideological terms? It’s a mentality not uncommon in political and military leadership, no matter what the nationality. Could such people be counted on to leave nuclear weapons on the shelf if other methods failed to achieve the desired goal? Imagine someone with a launch code getting a Doctor Strangelove itch to take “decisive action.”

The button-pushers will be respected, perfectly sane men and women simply doing their job. Such sanity inspired the Trappist monk Thomas Merton to comment:

We equate sanity with a sense of justice, with humaneness, with prudence, with the capacity to love and understand other people. We rely on the sane people of the world to preserve it from barbarism, madness, destruction. And now it begins to dawn on us that it is precisely the sane ones who are the most dangerous. It is the sane ones, the well-adapted ones, who can without qualms and without nausea aim the missiles and press the buttons that will initiate the great festival of destruction that they, the sane ones, have prepared…. No one suspects the sane, and the sane ones will have perfectly good reasons, logical, well-adjusted reasons, for firing the shot. They will be obeying sane orders that have come sanely down the chain of command. [Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable (New York: New Directions, 1966), 45-53.]

But we are not predestined to commit mass suicide. Partly thanks to the efforts of many people, there are signs of hope that we may get rid of such weapons before they get rid of us. Following nearly a decade of negotiations and international conferences, in July 2017 the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons came into effect, the first legally-binding international agreement to ban nuclear weapons, with the goal of their total elimination. For those nations that are party to it, the treaty prohibits the development, testing, production, stockpiling, stationing, transfer, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons, as well as assistance and encouragement to the prohibited activities. For nuclear-armed states joining the treaty, it provides for a time-bound framework for negotiations leading to the verified and irreversible elimination of its nuclear weapons program.

It comes as no surprise that none of the states that possess nuclear weapons have yet signed the treaty, but numerous groups, many of them of Christian inspiration, are campaigning for the public support that’s needed to bring about a change of direction — metanoia is the Greek word. What’s needed is as much a religious awakening as it is political. Who could describe as Christian a religion that fails to oppose weapons of mass destruction?

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10 August 2018
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Archbishop Anastasios of Albania: ‘Turn No One Away’

By Jim Forest

Archbishop Anastasios (photo: Jim Forest)

Archbishop Anastasios has a white beard and moustache. His hair is silver. His glasses have tortoise-shell frames with gold stems and thick lenses, though what you notice most of all is the twinkle in his welcoming brown eyes. His words are often echoed by hand gestures. While he never seems to hurry, he leads a busy life, as I was to see at close range during many days of travel at his side or visiting him at his office at the archdiocesan headquarters in Tirana. He rarely glances at his watch, but when he does it is not so much to know the hour as to signal that it’s time for the next thing he has to do.

When Archbishop Anastasios flew to Tirana from Athens on July 16, 1991, he was arriving in what had until recently been the world’s most militant atheist state. The 440 clergy that had served the Orthodox Church 60 years earlier had been reduced to 22, all old and frail, some close to death.

While Archbishop Anastasios could recall occasionally citing Albania as providing one of the most extreme examples of religious persecution since the age of Diocletian, it had never crossed his mind that Albania might one day become his home and that he would become responsible for leading a Church that most of the world regarded as not only oppressed but extinct.

Born November 4, 1929, in Piraeus, Greece, the port city on the west side of Athens,
it was by no means certain Anastasios Yannoulatos would become more than a nominal Christian. He grew up in a period when life seemed mainly shaped by secular ideologies, wars, politics and economics, with many of his peers regarding the Orthodox Church as little more than a decorative social vestige of the past.

When he was six, an army-backed dictatorship lead by General Ioannis Metaxas was established in Greece. Metaxas liked the titles “First Peasant,” “First Worker” and “National Father.” He led a fascist regime, though one independently minded and non-racist, resisting alliances with its counterparts in Germany and Italy. From bases in Albania, Italy invaded Greece in 1940. Anastasios was ten. While Italian forces were quickly pushed back into Albania, the following year the German army arrived in force. Greeks found themselves subject to a harsh tripartite German, Italian, and Bulgarian occupation, with civil war breaking out between factions of the resistance — the royalist right versus the Marxist left — even before occupation troops began to withdraw late in 1944. Anastasios was nearly 20 when civil conflict in Greece finally ended, the United States having weighed in on the side of democratic forces.

“I have many memories of the Second World War and the civil war in Greece that followed,” he told me. “This made me ask: Where is freedom and love? Many found their direction in the Communist movement, but I could not imagine that freedom and love could result from the Communist Party or any other party. Very early in my life there was a longing for something authentic. During the war we had no school — we were more free. I read a lot, so many books! Not all of them helped my faith — Marx, Freud, Feuerbach. But there was a turning point. I can remember as if it were yesterday kneeling on the roof of our home, saying, ‘Do you exist or not? Is it true there is a God of love? Show your love. Give me a sign.’

“When you say such a prayer, the answer comes. It does not come with angels singing but you realize God is there, in front of you and what He says is ‘I ask for you — not something from you.’ You understand in such a moment what is important is not to give but to be given.

“That prayer was when I was a teenager. You can see why I have such a respect for teenagers. It can be a time when you ask the most important questions and are willing to hear the answer that is without words. Love and respect is shown to young people not in words but in the way you approach them, how you see them. It is the same with very old people in difficult times, people who are suffering.”

In his teens Anastasios studied at a gymnasium in Athens. His main strength was in mathematics, but he had excellent grades in all his subjects. He graduated first in the school. “A certain path in life seemed obvious to everyone, but within myself there was a sense of being called toward the Church, not something everyone I knew sympathized with! At a critical moment, wrestling with the question what is essential, I turned toward freedom and love. It was a turn toward Christ, in whom I saw the only answer.”

Finally he applied for the Theological Faculty of Athens University. “It was, of course, the age of technology. My decision to become a theology student was a scandal. What a waste! This is what many of my friends and teachers thought at the time.”

While studying theology, he found himself drawn into Orthodox youth activities through which opportunities arose to meet young Orthodox Christians from other countries, an experience which made him realize that Christianity was far larger than Greece.

After being drafted into the Greek army for a term, where he served as a communications officer, he returned to academic life, now going further with developing communication skills — homiletics and journalism. At the same time youth work continued, which always included religious education. He began training other catechists, finally writing text books for a three-year program of religious education for youth. More than a quarter century and eight editions later, the books remained a standard in Greek Sunday schools.

I asked him about sources of inspiration in his childhood.

“As a young person I had been deeply moved by stories of Father Damian, a Catholic priest who served lepers in Hawaii, and also Albert Schweitzer. I asked myself whatever happened to our missionary tradition in the Orthodox Church? Where were the Orthodox missionaries? What are we doing to share our faith with others? What are we doing to reach all those people who have never heard the Gospel? I realized that indifference to missions is a denial of Orthodoxy and a denial of Christ. How had it happened that a Church called to baptize the nations was so indifferent to the nations? Saint Paul brought the Gospel to Greeks. Who were we bringing it to?”

It was a pivotal question that would shape the rest of his life.

In 1959 he founded a quarterly bi-lingual (Greek and English) magazine, Porefthendes (Go Ye), devoted to the study of the history, theology, methods and spirit of Orthodox mission. “With all my talk about mission, I was regarded at first as very romantic, but gradually people began to understand that a Church is not apostolic if it is not involved in mission activity. Apostolic means to be like the apostles, every one of whom was a missionary.” The journal lasted only a decade but its existence occasioned the resurrection of the mission tradition in the contemporary Orthodox Church.

In 1961, thanks to decisions made at the fifth assembly of Syndesmos, the Orthodox youth movement, a center also named Porefthendes was established in Athens with Anastasios as director. This in turn involved him in international ecumenical meetings on mission, events often organized by the World Council of Churches. Anastasios became a member of the WCC’s Working Committee on Mission Studies. He has since held a number of WCC leadership positions.

It was the desire to serve the Church as a missionary that finally brought him to ordination as a priest. “When I was 33, at Christmas time, I went to a remote monastic skete on the island of Patmos. This is a period of the year when there are few if any tourists. You experience absolute silence and isolation. During this time I again considered returning to missionary activity. The question formed in my mind: What about the dangers you will face? Then came the response: “Is God enough for you? If God is enough for you, go! If not, stay where you are.” Then a second question followed: “If God is not enough for you, then in what God do you believe?”

“In the evening of the day I was ordained a priest in May 1964, I flew to Uganda, which I had thought about so often and with such longing. I thought Africa would be my home for the remainder of my life, but malaria ended that dream. It was the malaria of the Great Lakes, which can attack the brain. The first symptom was loss of balance. Then I had a fever of 40 degrees. It was my first experience of being close to death. I remember the phrase that formed in my thoughts when I thought I would die: ‘My Lord, you know that I tried to love you.’ Then I slept — and the next day I felt well! But this was only a providential remission. There was a second attack when I went to Geneva to attend a mission conference. Fortunately doctors there were able to identify the illness and knew how to treat it. But I had a complete breakdown of health. When I was well enough to leave the hospital they said I must forget about returning to Africa.

This was like a second mortal wound for me. Friends said to me. ‘You don’t have to be a missionary — you can inspire others to be missionaries through your teaching.’ But it had always been clear to me that what you say you must also do — how could I teach what I wasn’t living?”

In the end Anastasios returned to his scholarly studies, but did not forget Africa. He received the prestigious “Alexander von Humboldt” scholarship and pursued post graduate studies at the Universities of Hamburg and Marburg, Germany from 1965-69. He specialized in the History of Religion, but also studied ethnology, missiology, and Africanology, with a main interest in studying African symbolism from the Orthodox perspective. His dissertation was entitled, The Spirits Mbandwa and the Frame of their Cult: A Research on the African Religion of Western Uganda.

In 1969, the WCC called Archimandrite Anastasios to accept a position created for him in the Commission of World Mission and Evangelism as the “Secretary for Research and Relation with the Orthodox Churches.”

By 1972 he was elected by the Faculty of Theology of Athens University as associate professor of the History of Religions. The same year, in recognition of the importance of his academic work, with his emphasis on mission, he was ordained Bishop of Androussa, with a special responsibility to be the general director of Apostoliki Diakonia of the Church of Greece. Four years later he became full professor.

Throughout the decade of the 1970s, he published four original studies on African religions, emphasizing the special respect we owe to the African past, and the necessity to properly understand it for any Orthodox witness among the Africans. He also made a special effort among his students to instill a sincere love and respect for the African people, and to understand the worldwide responsibility for an Orthodox witness. (Today, a number of these former students, including His Beatitude, Patriarch Petros, presently serve as Metropolitans under the Patriarchate of Alexandria in Africa.)

During this decade, he also became the first scholar in Greece to publish a general survey of Islam, a book in which he strongly advocated inter-religious dialogue, especially between Orthodoxy and Islam.

At the same period, he was involved in the ecumenical movement, serving as a member of the WCC’s theological working group on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies (1975-83). He later became the first Orthodox moderator of the Commission for Mission and Evangelism (1984-91), presiding over the San Antonio World Mission Conference in 1989.

In 1981, the Orthodox Church in East Africa was in a state of division and severe crisis. Patriarch Nicholas of Alexandria asked Bishop Anastasios for help restore the local African Church and become the acting archbishop of East Africa. In order to fulfill this task, he received permission from the University of Athens to restrict his academic work to one semester per year, and used the other semester, plus his vacation time, to live and work in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania.

After a fruitful decade in Africa, he could begin to contemplate eventually returning to the University of Athens and devoting himself to teaching and writing. Instead something altogether unimagined intervened in his life: neither Africa nor Athens but Albania.

In January 1991, one month after the government in Tirana had allowed the formation of non-Communist political parties, the Ecumenical Patriarchate took the initiative to re-establish the Church of Albania. Two months after his 61st birthday, Anastasios received a telephone call from the patriarchate in Constantinople asking if he would be willing to go to Albania as Exarch to see what if anything was left of the Orthodox Church. It was at the time intended not as a permanent assignment, only a reconnaissance effort to see if and how the local Church could be revived. It would require, however, a substantial interruption of his work in Africa.

After a time of prayer, he said yes, though it would take six months before the reluctant authorities in Tirana finally issued a visa, and that was only for one month. “The Communist times were over, but not completely. Attitudes formed in the course of many years of propaganda do not change quickly. However, once in the country, my visa was extended.”

Anastasios showed me several photos taken the day he arrived in Tirana. “It was a wonderful experience stepping off the airplane and being received by the people who had come to welcome me. It was a bright summer day, but the light seemed mainly to come from faces rather than the sun. Such joy!”

Delaying his arrival at an official reception arranged by Albania’s president, Anastasios’ first action was to visit Tirana’s temporary cathedral, though still in a devastated condition with a large hole in the roof. The old cathedral on the city’s main square had been demolished years before to make way for a hotel. The one church in Tirana that was beginning to serve as a place of public worship had been a gymnasium since 1967. Though the Easter season was past, on his arrival Anastasios gave everyone present the Paschal greeting, “Christ is risen!”, lit a candle and embraced local believers. “Everyone was weeping,” he remembers, “and I was not an exception.”

It was a far from easy life for Anastasios and those working with him. “When I first came to Tirana, I stayed in a hotel the first month. There was no other possibility. After that I was able to rent a small house with two floors, two rooms on each floor. I had a small office and bedroom above and a kitchen and meeting room below. There was a lack of water, lack of heat, lack of electricity. For me the cold was the most difficult. This was our Archdiocese at that time. I recall how surprised the government was that I had no bodyguards. It amazed them that I wasn’t interested in such ‘security’!”

He quickly discovered that in this corner of Europe a degree of poverty existed which he had not encountered before. “Of course there was great poverty in East Africa, but at least most people there had their own garden. Here that isn’t the case. Like so many Albanians, my diet that summer in Albania was chiefly watermelon, bread, tomatoes and oil.”

He had no idea when he stepped off the plane in Tirana that July day he had arrived at what would be his home for the rest of his life. “My mission as Exarch was only to discover what if anything of the local Church had survived the decades of extreme repression and to see if there were suitable candidates for consecration as bishops who had survived. Only later was I asked by authorities of the Patriarchate if I would be willing to accept election as Archbishop of Albania. After a period of reflection and prayer, I was open, depending on three conditions. The first was that it must be clear that this was the wish of the Orthodox in Albania. Second, that this was the desire of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Third, that the Albanian authorities would accept this decision. Otherwise the situation of the Church would only be made more difficult. My answer was much less than yes! I was like Jonah looking for a path of escape! But inside my prayer was, ‘Your will be done.’

“The Orthodox people were indeed pressing me to stay. They made it clear day after day. And how could I refuse them? How could I say I had a different plan for the rest of my life? Remaining in Albania would mean putting aside all the ideas I had about what I would be doing with the remainder of my life — a peaceful retirement in Greece, giving occasional lectures at the university and writing books. I had collected a vast amount of material on the history of religion in various countries and had a scholarly desire to elaborate and publish all that material. I knew that if I stayed I would have to give my undivided attention to Albania. All other plans and interests would have to be put completely aside.”

“On June 24, 1992, following the proposal of the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, the Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate unanimously elected me as head of the Orthodox Church of Albania. After overcoming serious difficulties, I accepted the appointment by giving the “Great Message” on July 12. The enthronement occurred on August 2, in the presence of all the clergy and lay leaders of Albania. In fact I was not so much accepting a throne — that sounds rather comfortable! — but embracing the Cross.

“Remarkably, the Berisha government had acceded to my election, but between their acceptance and the event itself around a month later, there was a renewed government-backed attack on the Church and on me personally.

“It was a time of constant crisis. Every day there was a critical decision. My constant prayer in those days was, ‘Illumine me Lord to know your will, give me humility to accept your will, and give me strength to obey and take the consequences’.”

The situation was to grow more critical. He was often the target of severe criticism and false reports in the Albanian press— a “verbal crucifixion,” in the words of one of the archbishop’s co-workers. A law was almost passed that would have forced any non-Albanian bishop to leave the country. His life has been repeatedly threatened. It is one of many Albanian miracles that he is still alive and well.

“The fact that I was Greek, not Albanian, was a daily theme in hostile press articles, speeches in Parliament and television reports. The message was very simple: If you are a Greek, you must be a spy. How else could an Albanian whose mind was shaped in the Hoxha period think? A mind entirely formed by an atheistic culture? Each person was seen exclusively in social-economic terms. You cannot imagine that a man in his sixties could be coming here because of love! Therefore, we cannot complain about such people. Their way of thinking is not their fault. It is an algebraic logic in which numbers exist below zero. But how to respond to hatred? Here you learn that often the best dialogue is in silence — it is love without arguments. Only remember you cannot love without cost, neither Christ nor anyone.”

The decisive attempt to remove the Archbishop was made in the Autumn of 1994. The intended means was the proposed insertion of a special paragraph in the new draft of the state Constitution. “At a certain point, when our situation seemed absolutely hopeless, I was packed and ready to depart the following morning, only trying to prepare others to carry on in my place while I did whatever was possible living outside Albania. It seemed to me and many people nothing less than a miracle that the new constitution was rejected in the national referendum in November 1994. This was not the result anyone expected!”

Another serious problem for the local church, that created numerous disputes, troubles and pain for several years, was the re-establishment of the Holy Synod.

“This issue was finally settled in July 1998, following persistent negotiations by representatives from the Ecumenical Patriarchate (especially Metropolitans Evangelos of Perges and Meliton of Philadelphia), the Church of Albania, and the Albanian authorities. In the end, Metropolitan Ignatius from Greece took his see in Berat, and two Albanians were chosen, Archimandrite Joan Pelushi as Metropolitan of Korça, and Fr. Kosma Qirio as Bishop of Apollonia. This solved a crucial problem for the proper functioning of an autocephalous Church.

“For the first seven hard years, I had to struggle alone as bishop, surrounded only by a General Ecclesiastical Council composed of thirteen clergy and lay members. Demanding needs in all dioceses and parishes were pressing. From this point onwards, I would continue the uphill road in communion with precious brothers. A Holy Synod, in which we are being, thinking and acting in His name, is a real divine gift and a spiritual security.”

His difficulties were not simply of a political nature. One of the hardest challenges was to overcome divisions within the Church. “There used to be great division within the Church. Our people come from various ethnic backgrounds. Our first goal was to create unity among Orthodox Christians. After so much persecution, we could no longer allow division. I recall in Korça saying, ‘Do you think the forest is more beautiful if there is only one kind of tree?’ All the various trees must grow freely under the rays of the sun.’ The key to proper development is love and freedom.”

One element in the process of breaking down borders inside the Church had to do with how the Church refers to itself.

“We do not call ourselves the Albanian Orthodox Church, but the Orthodox Church of Albania. In fact, we look upon ourselves as the Orthodox Church in Albania. We are part of the world Church. The Orthodox Church is not a federation of churches; the one Orthodox Church fully exists in particular places. We are going toward the kingdom of God together. No one can be an island, not even Britain, not even huge China. You cannot be isolated. On the other hand we point out that we are autocephalous, a word that means self-standing. We govern ourselves — our autocephalous status was recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarch in 1937. But we had to resume Church life after a long interruption, a process in which the Ecumenical Patriarchate played a vital role. The Orthodox in Albania are grateful to Patriarch Bartholomew for his continuous interest during these critical years.”

He struggled personally to give an example through the use of the Albanian language. “It has been important for me not only to learn Albanian but to take care that whenever I say something I say it not just in a way that can be understood but say it well. I must carefully pronounce each word and phrase. The first words I learned were, ‘Krishti u ngjall, Zoti eshte me ne, lavdi Zotit!’ — ‘Christ is risen, God is with us, Glory to God!’ It has been very important to use Albanian even in situations where the majority speak Greek, as is the case in many towns and villages in the south. I recall in Saranda, very close to the Greek border and in sight of the Greek island of Corfu, we had our first public prayer in the open air near the shore. It was suggested it could be done entirely in Greek — almost everyone would understand. But I said that even if only two persons need Albanian, we shall have Albanian.”

One of the most pressing tasks for Archbishop Anastasios was directing the effort to provide places for worship in a country in which churches had been methodically destroyed or turned to secular functions. His most visible achievements are all the churches erected or restored since his arrival. By the middle of 2001, 80 new churches have been build, 70 churches restored from ruin, more than 140 repaired, and five monasteries brought back to life.

In addition, more than twenty large buildings have been erected or renovated to house the theological academy in Durres, the office of the archdiocese in Tirana and diocesan centers and bishops’ residencies in Korça, Berat and Gjirokaster, the Holy Cross High School in Gjirokaster, a diagnostic center in Tirana, dispensaries, guest houses, schools, and the complex “Nazareth” housing the candle factory, printing house, icon atelier, restoration workshop and other church service facilities.

He recalled a recent visit to a place where local people come to pray even though not a single wall of the church that once stood there survives.

“Often you see with the Albanian people how a church still exists in a certain place even when you see only scattered fragments. It is amazing how people will treat a church as a church no matter how ruined it is — no matter what had been done to the building, no matter what else it was — it remains a church, it remains connected to the holy. Even in the times when it was dangerous, people went to places where churches once stood to pray and light candles.

“Many times in the first months the Liturgy was conducted out of doors as no indoor place of worship was available, but preferably in a place where a church formerly existed. Of course this was only possible when the weather cooperated.

“In the very beginning we had no alternative but to put up a number of prefabricated temporary churches in various locations, but in the years since then the churches are permanent structures built mainly of stone each with its own character. In some cases these are restored, often from a state of ruin, while others are built from the foundations up. Our goal has been not simply to put up adequate buildings but to make beautiful churches. Through the architecture of the church buildings we try to say something not only about the present but the future. It is work coordinated by the technical office, under the direction of Father Theologos, an Athonite monk who studied architecture, together with a staff of local, skilled collaborators. We have spent millions of dollars on church construction and restoration. The majority of these funds are donations from people in other countries, including some of my former students who have done well in their work and are able to be generous or who are active in trusts and foundations that can assist us. Sometimes I say I am an international beggar! We are a poor Church, but very rich in friends. And we are deeply grateful for all of them.”

The Church is, however, not rich in friends within the government.

“Rarely have the political authorities been quick to return confiscated church property in those cases where churches hadn’t been completely destroyed, or even land with church ruins on it. This is a problem that impedes us in many locations to this very day. Sometimes the only practical solution is to buy back what was stolen from us.”

Church building often involves more than just a structure for worship. “When we build or restore a church or monastery, often we also have to rebuild the road. I was once asked what gift I would like — I think they meant an icon. I said, ‘I would like a bulldozer.’ They were surprised! ‘But what can you do with a bulldozer?’ ‘We can make roads in the remote areas so that we make more humane the life of our people.”

“With all our construction projects, the Church has become a significant factor in the economic development of Albania. We are one of Albania’s most serious investors and job creators.”

There is not only the on-going task of providing church buildings where needed but helping those drawn to the church to learn to pray together after a long exile from church life in a rigidly secular society.

“Sometimes it was very difficult to conduct the Liturgy. Often people came more to watch than pray. It was like having the Liturgy in a place where cars are being repaired or where a football game was going on. Often it was impossible to have silence. Many times I was severe. I refused to go further with the Liturgy until the people were silent. I didn’t mean the children. Let them chatter like birds. But let the rest of the people pay attention to the service and not carry on as if they were in the market.”

At a Liturgy in a remote mountain village, in a cemetery church which had survived the Hoxha years by serving as a weapon depot, I saw how readily Archbishop Anastasios adapted himself to the enthusiasm of children, not only the noises they make but their eagerness to be close to him. One child approached him for a blessing and immediately all the children wanted the same thing. With so many children present, this meant a delay in the start of the service, but that was no problem.

Related to the task of restoring the physical church and the understanding of what it means to pray together is the reformation of understanding the co-responsibility of each person in the Church for the life of the Church.

“We have three basic principles that I speak of again and again. The first is local leadership, next local language, and finally local finance. It is only on the last that we have had to compromise. The profound poverty of Albania has required help from outside to rebuild the churches and to undertake projects to relieve suffering. But even in this area we never undertake a project without financial sacrifice from Albanians as well. In order to receive God’s blessing, we have to offer what we have. Only zero cannot be blessed. With only two fish and five loaves, Christ fed 5,000 — but there had to be gift of what little people had.

“One of the most memorable gifts I received for the diaconal work of the Church came from two elderly women whose brother was killed during the Second World War in southern Albania. For fifty-five years these women carefully saved money to be used in some good way in memory of their brother. Fifty-five years! When I met them they presented all the money they had saved — also some flowers. I used the money for our girls’ high school near Gjirokaster and in the same village put the flowers they gave me at the base of a memorial for those who died in the war.”

Another immediate task was to do all that was possible to relieve suffering in Europe’s poorest country. The Church began to set up clinics in major population centers. There are programs to assist the disabled, a women’s rural health program, an agriculture developmental program, work with prisoners and the homeless, free cafeterias, and emergency assistance to the destitute. Most of this work is carried out through the Diaconal Agapes (Service of Love), a Church department set up by Archbishop Anastasios in 1992 and first led by Father Martin Ritsi [who now heads the Orthodox Christian Mission Center in the US], later by Penny Deligiannis, and now by an Albanian, Nina Gramo Perdhiku. These projects were never intended simply to benefit Orthodox Christians alone but any person in need, no matter what his or her faith — or lack of faith.

“We keep working to improve the standards of health care,” said Archbishop Anastasios. “The Annunciation Clinic here in Tirana now meets the highest European standards. People come from all over the country to use it.”

Another model project is a dental clinic housed in a large white van that travels from town to town. While accompanying Archbishop Anastasios on a visit to the Monastery of Ardenica, we happened to encounter the mobile clinic parked in the field of a nearby village. The archbishop decided not only to stop and greet the many local children waiting in line outside the van but to test the dental chair himself and invite the dentist to inspect his teeth under the bright light. The children watched with delight. Archbishop Anastasios quickly became a beloved uncle.

While his official title is Archbishop of Tirana and All Albania, Anastasios has occasionally been called the Archbishop of Tirana and All Atheists. It isn’t a title he objects to. “I am everyone’s archbishop. For us each person is a brother or sister. The Church is not just for itself. It is for all the people. As we say at the altar during each Liturgy, it is done ‘on behalf of all and for all. Also we pray ‘for those who hate us and for those who love us.’ Thus we cannot have enemies. How could we? If others want to see us as enemies, it is their choice, but we do not consider others as enemies. We refuse to punish those who punished us. Always remember that at the Last Judgment we are judged for loving Him, or failing to love Him, in the least person. The message is clear. Our salvation depends upon respect for the other, respect for otherness. This is the deep meaning of the Parable of the Good Samaritan — we see not how someone is my neighbor but how someone becomes a neighbor. It is a process. We also see in the parable how we are rescued by the other. What is the theological understanding of the other? It is trying to see how the radiation of the Son of God occurs in this or that place, in this or that culture. This is much more than mere diplomacy. We must keep our authenticity as Christians while seeing how the rays of the Son of Righteousness pass through another person, another culture. Only then can we bring something special.”

I noticed while traveling with him how each day he gives an example of love of non-Orthodox neighbors. To give but one instance, when we visited the Ardenica monastery, one of the very few religious centers to survive the Hoxha period with little damage (it had become a tourist hotel).

There was a group on Albanian tourists visiting when we arrived one of whom approached the Archbishop. “I am not baptized,” he said. “I am a Moslem. But will you bless me?” The man received not only an ardent blessing but was reminded by the archbishop that he was a bearer of the image of God. [use photo of the man receiving a blessing]

Educational work was another key area of concern, first of all to prepare both men and women for service in the Church. “We are struggling with the problem of the shortage of priests. The young generation was raised in an atheistic climate, and after that came the capitalist dream, which made many decide to go to other countries. The scent of money is very powerful. Gradually some people realize money does not bring happiness, that happiness can only come from something deeper.

“To develop local leaders, in 1992 we immediately started a seminary, renting a hotel in Durres. What a place it was! Much of the time it had no heat, no electricity, no running water. But we were able to overcome the difficulties for several years, until our own seminary building was ready in October 1996. It was suggested we send our seminarians to study in Greece and America, but decided their formation should be here. In order to have a new forest, you plant the trees where they will grow, not somewhere else. Since the seminary was opened, there have been 120 ordinations.

“It is not easy finding promising candidates. In the Communist time many efforts were made to ridicule the clergy as an uneducated lower class, if not evil people, and still there are people who defame the clergy, though it has become more and more difficult to imagine priests as uneducated. But finding suitable candidates and giving them a good theological education is hard, tiring work.

“In earlier times the priest was at the center of village and town life — teacher, healer, judge, reconciler, a person who could call things by their true names. We hope in the future something of this tradition can be restored. Not to offend politicians, but the priest is a permanent silent leader.

“We need serious young people, capable of leadership, who will realize that being a priest is not a second of third choice and that it is a vocation that can make an enormous difference, no less significant than a physician or engineer.

“As you will have noticed, there are not only men but also women at the seminary, about a third of the enrollment. It used to be the vocation of women was mainly in the home, but now they have a public life and the Church must use their gifts. Women exercise another form of church service. There are many women who have graduated from the seminary and who are playing an important role in the activities of the Church in Albania — diaconal works of mercy, teachers, administration, mission activity, and so forth. We would have achieved much less without them.”

In addition to the seminary, schools have been started to meet other needs. A post-secondary “Institute for Professional Training” was recently opened in Tirana. In Gjirokaster for several years there has been a high school for boys and one for girls in a nearby town. Twelve kindergartens have been opened in various towns and cities. There are summer camps and many youth programs.

“Our first priority is children. We have opened many kindergartens, nurseries and schools. Our only regret is that we cannot help more young people. We do what we can with the staff and space we can afford.”

Archbishop Anastasios points out that education is far more than books to read and facts to memorize. The goal must be to help shape people who are not only capable intellectually or skilled in certain specializations, but motivated by respect and love rather than greed and fear. As he says: “God did not give us a spirit of fear but of power. Those who fear God fear nothing else.”

But Albania is still a country in which fear and greed shape many people’s lives.

“To get results we need people — holy people — people who don’t change things but change themselves. The Church has the power to create people capable of love and sacrifice, people above vendettas, people capable of forgiveness. Reconciliation is not easy. It needs help from the Church. Forgiveness and reconciliation are an essential part of the Christian life, especially during Lent. It gives us the power to forgive the other. More forgiveness, more community!

“The young generation was educated with systematic Communist propaganda. It was a culture of fear. Look at all the many bunkers littering the country that were built in the Communist era. Each one is like a large skull. When you see many of them near each other, it is like a cemetery of exposed bones. In the Hoxha period, the creation of enemies was essential to maintaining the discipline of the people. It was a diabolic method, the formation of a culture of fear. Fear, once learned, is hard to unlearn. Many people still are paralyzed by fear.

“Now they are subject to another propaganda — the idea that status in society equals having money. The new system says that the more money you have, the more important you are. But without love and sacrifice, people become wild animals. Today, without religious communities, there is no hope. Otherwise they cannot understand sacrifice motivated by love, by belief in Christ. It is a pity so many are held captive by the belief that happiness comes from money. Young people must know there is something more behind life. Now when such people look at those who are living sacrificial lives, they assume the other person is getting some secret material benefit. Often they imagine our helpers from other countries are making more money assisting us here than they would in their home country! Otherwise why would they be here? But finally they begin to see that our collaborators give up a great deal in coming to Albania — that the motive is not at all financial. In some cases this discovery gives young Albanians the motivation to stay here.

“I often ask people I meet, ‘What would you like to do?’ And often the answer is, ‘Emigrate!’ They don’t say what they want to do — only that they want to leave. At the present time there are about half a million Albanians in Greece alone, all arriving in the last decade, some going legally, many illegally. There are so many Albanians in other countries, in many cases not happy where they are, but thinking they have no alternative. Some of them are trying to help those who remain here. Of course often they are tempted to leave as so many of their friends have done. They ask me, ‘What about the future?’ Of course, I share their concern, but I emphasize, ‘Let us look at the present. Let us do our duty, only doing whatever is an expression of love of one for the other. This will shape the future.”

Still another dimension of the Church’s task is to teach forgiveness.

“This begins within the Church in the way we respond to those who denied or betrayed the Church, in the Communist period. Especially in earlier years, I was sometimes asked, what do we do when such people want to rejoin the Church after having been apostates? Our response must be to forgive and receive them back, not to turn anyone away. Following the fall of communism, the first church we opened in Berat has an inscription above the central door which says — ‘Whoever comes to me, I will not cast away.’ However difficult it is, we must be willing to forgive and forget. There can be no true forgiveness without forgetting.”

There have been several other areas of development in bringing the Church fully back to life. “We started a radio station and newspaper, both called Ngjallja — Resurrection. The newspaper is monthly, the radio station is on the air 24 hours a day. It broadcasts a mixture of spiritual programs, music, news and other programming. There is now a children’s hour. Recently an antenna was set up so that broadcasts can now reach the southern part of the country. Also we have a center just outside Tirana called Nazareth where icon painting and restoration are taught. In the same building there are also a printing house and a candle factory. The sale of candles provides local parishes with a steady source of income.”

He sees as another area of activity for the Church developing projects to foster local environmental responsibility.

“This year, we started an environmental protection program which includes training 15 post-graduate students, who have completed degrees in biology and forest or environmental engineering. They will set up programs to protect the eco-system in three areas of Albania. We are even establishing garbage management programs in two cities. Part of the vocation of the parish is to keep the village, town and city clean. We need to inspire the idea of a clean environment. Albania used to have it but it was imposed by a police state. Now it is not imposed but needs to be chosen.”

“What is necessary is that the Church should be present in all areas of life — with pilot programs in health care, education, social and relief efforts, developmental programs, culture and environmental concerns — all those things which are essential to civilization. In each area of life we must implant a spiritual dimension. Culture is more than technology! Most of all it is respect for the dignity of people. Culture requires respect for God’s creation. Where it exists, there is beauty.”

He paused to reflect on the importance of foreign volunteers in the work the Church is doing in Albania. So far they come mainly from Greece and the United States. Some come continually over a period of years, perhaps teaching in the seminary or taking key roles in church projects, others coming from time to time for specific tasks, like the architect Eva Papapetrou from Athens.

“Among our biggest blessings are the gifted people who have come to assist us, though it is not a success in every case. All who offer their services want to help, but not all who come are able to cope with the problems of daily life in Albania. It is not easy being here! We cannot romanticize it. Not everyone has the necessary patience. There are others who are full of their own ideas and too eager to import solutions. This only creates confusion. I ask people from abroad who come not to come with answers to all our problems but rather to come and see and listen and to discover first how to live when things are not working — when the water and electricity are not flowing. First they need to learn not why some people leave — that’s easy enough to understand — but why so many people stay even though they could easily emigrate. The list is too long to mention, and you already met some of them, but I feel the need to express, again and again my deep gratitude for the long-term collaborators who have stayed with us.”

One crucial dimension of life for the archbishop is helping maintain good relations between the several religious communities. During my stay there was a visit with national leaders of the Moslem community — “part of the normal rhythm of my life,” he explained, “and not only since arriving in Albania. During my long journey I have learned one must always respect the other and regard no one as an enemy. We must help each other for the sake of our communities. Tolerance is not enough — there must be respect and cooperation. If we turn our backs on each other, only atheism benefits. We also have to meet with respect those who have no belief.”

There are similar visits with Catholic bishops, clergy and lay people. Archbishop Anastasios helped welcome Mother Teresa when, in her old age, the Albanian-born nun was able to visit post-Communist Albania. It pleases him that one of the main streets in Tirana has been renamed in her honor and a postage stamp is graced with her portrait. (While visiting the Orthodox Church’s Annunciation Clinic in Tirana, I happened to meet one of the sisters from Mother Teresa’s community, the Missionary Sisters of Charity. The city’s Orthodox and Catholic cathedrals are nearly side by side.)

The Archbishop spoke about the ecumenical vision he is trying to transmit among the Orthodox in Albania.

“Beyond a Balkan, European perspective, we are trying to respectfully and lovingly embrace the whole church and the entire world that Christ himself has raised, redeemed and enlightened by His cross and resurrection. The ecumenical vision offers a special power, endurance and perspective — for every local and concrete situation. Besides this, the emphasis on the ecumenicity and catholicity of the church, and the gaze on the incarnate word of God in the Holy Spirit, offers to the Orthodox thought and conscience an open horizon with boundless majesty.”

Interfaith dialogue, he pointed out, is not simply exchanges of words.

“It helped being in the World Council of Churches’ committee for dialogue with other religions, but what we did was academic. Here you learn that often the best dialogue is in silence — it is love without arguments.”

His task, he has discovered, is not only to lead the Orthodox Church in Albania.

“You must bear in mind that Albania has had very little experience of being an independent country and even less experience of freedom. The Albanian state was created in 1912-13. Then there were 25 years of trying to build up that state in the poorest country in Europe.

“Killing here is not something rare — it easily happens that someone ‘disappears.’ There are complex rules of revenge that are still operative in many places. In such a setting it is necessary to think in larger terms, about social development as a whole, to think not in terms of decades but centuries. We must think not about luxuries but necessities and endurance. We must think what it means to be free.

“A passport does not give freedom. If God does not free us, we will have no freedom. I sometimes pray, ‘O Lord, free me from myself. Free me from fear! Let me be a free person in Christ.’ God is always a God of love and freedom. Love and freedom must come first in our lives and they lead us to God Himself. You cannot love the other if you are not free from yourself. It is not easy. It is never finished. It may happen that you are only free a small part of the time. I was free part of yesterday.”

As democracy was originally a Greek idea, perhaps it should not be surprising that a Greek bishop is not only a Christian missionary but a missionary of democracy.

“Part of my vocation here is to encourage fermentation in the society. We must ask the question how can Albania become a truly democratic society? Democracy is a complex phenomenon. It cannot be just one party which happens to be in power imposing its will. It is more than coming to power via elections. Democracy means respect for truth, respect for the other. It means not confusing words and slogans with reality. It means not thinking your violence is good, their violence is a crime. Words change but unfortunately the syntax remains as it was. We suffer from a vacuum of values and from a very rough form of capitalism — the capitalism you meet in Oliver Twist.”

Not all Albania’s calamities occurred before the end of the rigid Communism in 1991. In 1997, Albania was plunged into anarchy after the collapse of pyramid investment schemes in which many Albanians had risked and lost their life savings.

“The country was on the verge of civil war,” Archbishop Anastasios recalled. “It was a major disaster revealing all the fear and violence that had accumulated in so many people’s hearts. People who had come from other countries in most cases fled abroad or were airlifted out. During this period the Church provided emergency aid to 25,000 families and tirelessly repeated our appeal, ‘No to arms, no to violence’. We said that no act of violence can be justified by the Church.”

Ignoring the advice of many friends both in Albania and elsewhere, he refused to leave the country.

“Many had to leave but I realized I must stay and invited those to stay with me who were willing. In my own case, I am the captain of the ship. For me leaving was not an option. But the danger was very real”

He showed me a bullet that had lodged itself in the double-pane glass of his office, smashing the outer pane but being stopped by the inner pane. [use photo of him by the window with the embedded bullet]

“It was strange to see a bullet that had been halted like that! I’ve kept it there as a souvenir of those times in which we were tested, when each day could have been our last. In those days I was sleeping on the office floor in a corner below the windows.”

Carefully pulling the curtain further back, he drew my attention to a grey pigeon tending a single egg in a flower pot. “A bullet and an egg!” he commented. “Perfect symbols of Albania at the crossroads.”

“We must in every situation choose life and refuse the temptation to hate and harm others,” he said. “Many times, not only in 1997, I have repeated the message, ‘The oil of religion should be used to soothe and heal the wounds of others, not to ignite the fires of hatred’.”

Expanding on the theme of healing, he commented on the Gospel story in which Christ heals a paralytic who was lowered by friends through a hole in the roof when a crowd blocked the way.

“Notice that Christ heals the man not because of his faith but their faith. It is a revealing phrase, ‘seeing their faith.’ Faith is collaboration: thinking together, praying together, acting together. The Church is not the place of my prayer but of our prayer. We pray together and are responsible for each other. Paralysis is not only a physical condition. Some people are paralyzed in their inability to love, to believe in God, to forgive, to collaborate. To move from only doing this for my own benefit to acting in a way that benefits the community — this is being healed of paralysis. Then we become responsible for each other. Christ’s healing goes to the depth of life, to our need for forgiveness. Healing is another word for peace — Christ is the one who heals our brokenness.”

Another time of testing came in 1999, when NATO attacked Yugoslavia, bombing many targets in Serbia and Kosovo.

“Half a million Kosovar refugees fled to Albania in that period. The Church could not turn its back on them. While the majority of refugees were quickly taken into Albanian homes, we took responsibility for 32,000 people, and are still operating the last refugee camp in the country. It didn’t matter to us that few if any of the refugees were Christian. For some time we stopped classes at the seminary so all the students could participate in emergency work with the refugees.” I knew from photos that the archbishop was not only sending others to help but was also doing so himself, unloading boxes of food and medicine. “In this period, perhaps it became clearer to our critics that the Church is not here only for itself but for everyone.”

The Archbishop recalled how, at that time, some of the seminary students were initially afraid, worried some of the refugees might be hostile to Orthodox Christians, even if they were there to help.

“I said we must go in the middle of the crisis and see the face of Christ in those who suffer. There was one student who asked, ‘But will the cross I am wearing provoke some?’ I said to him that it was enough to wear the cross in his heart. More important than speeches about Orthodoxy are Orthodox actions. Obey the God of love, don’t be afraid. Don’t let fear become an idol. It is impossible to do theology without involvement.”

* * *

Late in my stay in Albania, sitting next to him one night as we drove along a narrow, winding mountain road, I asked if he could tell me about the prayer life that sustains him. After a long silence, he began to answer my question.

“The roots must remain hidden. There is a Trinitarian emphasis in my short repetitive prayers. I start with the verse in the Book of Revelation, ‘O Lord, who is, who was and who is to come, the Almighty, Glory to Thee.’ Then I continue with the Jesus Prayer — ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.’ And I finish with the invocation, ‘O Holy Spirit, give me your fruit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Gal 5:22-23].’ Notice that Paul says ‘fruit’ — not ‘fruits.’ Communion with the Holy Spirit gives birth to all these qualities.

“The experience of St. Paul in his apostolic endeavors remains a basic refuge and inspiration, while my prayer for my people and me culminates in his prayer — Ephesians 3:14-21. There is a special music in the Greek text that I don’t hear in translations, but the meaning is always clear. Our life is to be a ray of the Holy Spirit, to be used by Him. It is not our own activity that is important but what He does through us.

“Prayer summarizes a longing. The problem is that so often we become ego-centered, lacking humility. Thus it is good to pray, ‘Oh Lord, deliver me from myself and give me to Yourself!’ — a cry of the heart. It is similar to the prayer, ‘Lord, I believe, please help my unbelief.’ Often it is necessary to pray for forgiveness.

“Many times in my life there is no time for long prayers, only time to quickly go into what I call the ‘hut of prayer’ — very short prayers that I know by heart or to make a very simple request — ‘Show me how to love!’ Or, when you have to make a decision, ‘Lord, help me make the right estimation and come to the right judgment, to make the right action.’ Then there is the very simple prayer, ‘Your will be done.’ I have also learned, in Albania, what it means to be a foreigner, to come from a country many regard with suspicion. This, however, can help one become more humble. It helps one pray with more intensity, ‘Use me according to Your will.’ Often I pray, ‘Lord, illumine me so that I know your will, give me the humility to accept your will, and the strength to do your will.’ I go back to these simple prayers again and again.

“Many times the Psalms are my refuge. You realize that in the spontaneous arising of certain phrases from the Psalms you are hearing God speak to you. Perhaps you are reciting the psalm, ‘My soul, why are you so downcast…’ And then another phrase from the Psalms arises which is a response. It is an ancient Christian tradition that a bishop should know many psalms by heart. The Psalms provide a spiritual refuge. In each situation there is a psalm that can help you, in those critical moments when you have no place of retreat. Perhaps you remember the words, ‘Unless the Lord guards the house, they who guard it labor in vain.’ You are reminded that your own efforts are not decisive. You also come to understand that your own suffering is a sharing in His suffering. It is a theme St. Paul sometimes writes about. You come to understand that the resurrection is not after the Cross but in the Cross.

“Often in prayer we have no time to think what each word means. But prayer is not an analytical activity. It is in our intention, in our longing. You know you are far away from the ideal and you reach out in prayer. God does not need a detailed report about our efforts. Sometimes the only prayer that is possible is the prayer of silence, silence and cries of the heart asking the Holy Spirit to dwell in us.

“I have a secret corner, a tiny chapel next to my apartment, a place for thinking, praying, appealing for strength, for overcoming frustration, so that I can try to understand God’s will, and then find the humility and strength to obey.”

Archbishop Anastasios also spoke about what he called “Theotokos spirituality.”

“Theotokos simply means Mother of God or God bearer. This is Mary, Christ’s mother. Think of her! She became the first and best disciple and sets the perfect example for anyone who is trying to follow her Divine Son. There are three main elements in her witness. She said to the archangel, ‘Be it done to me according to your word.’ God’s will, not my own! She gives us this example and through it Christ enters our lives. She also said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord.’ We are asked to center our lives on the Lord, not ourselves. And she says, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ We learn from her another type of freedom — the freedom to be free of your own plans. We realize He becomes present in our lives, as he became present in hers, through obedience. It is the obedience of love, a gift of the Holy Spirit. In her silence, in her capacity to quietly consider events in her heart, we also learn much about prayer — face-to-face conversations with God in silence. Contemplating the Mother of God is a great help and is itself a form of prayer.”

* * *

The day I left Albania, there was time for one last conversation with the archbishop before Father Luke Veronis took me to the airport. I reminded him that he had been reluctant at first to make his home in Albania. This made him laugh. “People look at the difficulties of life here and say to me, ‘How can you stand it? It is so ugly!’ But for me it is so beautiful! It is God’s blessing to be here — not the blessing I imagined but the one I received.

“My origins are not with the humble people, but I learn from them to become more simple, more true, more honest, more ready to forgive and let go of past injuries. Humility is not an achievement but a development, a contiguous dynamism in our life. So often you meet here in Albania persons who absorb every word, every gesture. Their faces are like a thirsty land ready to absorb every single drop of rain. It is a surprising providence to be sent to serve such people, people you never knew, never expected to meet, and yet who receive you with such confidence. Thank God I was sent to live among such people, to be helped by them.”

“People sometimes ask me about my expectations, but I don’t know about the future! You can only do your job with love and humility. I am not the savior of Albania, only a candle in front of the icon of the Savior.”

* * *
This is a chapter from The Resurrection of the Church in Albania by Jim Forest, published in 2002 by the World Council of Churches, Geneva, Switzerland. ISBN 2-8254-1359-3.
* * *

Thomas Merton: One Foot in the Wilderness, One Foot in the World

Vancouver School of Theology / public lecture / 12 July 2018

By Jim Forest

Were our long-dead ancestors, say just about anyone from before the nineteenth century, transported by time machine into our twenty-first century world, my guess is that the biggest single shock that our world would pose for them would not be our modern technology but rather the unrelenting noise that most of us are subject to. The noise of traffic. The noise of jet planes overhead. The noise of television and radio. The noise of machinery. The noise of garbage trucks roaming the streets before dawn. The noise of canned music pumped out of loudspeakers into supermarkets and so many other stores. The noise of ambulance and police sirens. The thin ghostly sounds emitted by earphones. The noises made by mobile phones as they announce incoming calls, followed by the noise of one-way conversations. The noise of vacuum cleaners and lawnmowers…. This is but a partial list. Feel free to add your least favorite noise.

We live in a cacophonous world in which billions of people have not only acclimated themselves to noise but become noise addicts. Many of us depend on more or less continuous noise. For almost any urban person, silence is a stunning experience — for many, it’s frightening. We all know people who keep a radio, television or music player on continuously. I recall a friend in New York who lost his job as a radio announcer on a popular station for broadcasting ten seconds of silence. The station manager said that, more than anything else, their audience depended on the station to provide constant sound. Even one second of silence meant listener distress and an urgent search for sound on another station.

Thomas Merton was a refugee from the world of noise. On the 10th of December, 1941, a month before his 27th birthday, he left a teaching job at a small Franciscan college in upstate New York and presented himself as an applicant monk at the gate of a Trappist monastery, Our Lady of Gethsemani, in rural Kentucky. Until his death 27 years later, he was part of a community that lived in silence, the monks communicating with each other mainly by sign language, resorting to the spoken word only when it was essential. Merton had embraced what he sometimes referred to as “the silent life,” the title of one of his books. But at times even the monastery was not silent enough for Merton. When the abbot bought a tractor and other agricultural equipment to make the monastery’s farm more efficient and profitable, the resultant noise distressed him. Merton was noise allergic.

What Merton sought was not a dead silence or a cold silence but a vibrant silence, a condition in which it is easier to be aware of the presence of God. In many ways it was a leaning that was akin to what his artist parents had sought. They too were contemplatives. His mother, Ruth, had become a Quaker, connecting herself with a tradition whose base of worship is silence. His father, Owen, himself a churchless Christian, was a man who sought out quiet environments in which to draw and paint, the kind of place where Tom Merton was born: Prades, an isolated town in the French Pyrenees. My guess is that his contemplative parents, both of whom died in their son’s youth, played a major part in nudging Merton toward a contemplative vocation.

A significant aspect of Merton’s attraction to becoming a hermit was not only his at-homeness with solitude but his longing to live in a deeper silence than was possible even within a Trappist community. Just a decade after becoming a monk, he imagined what it would it would be like to live alone in the woods north of the monastery. “The woods cultivate me with their silences,” he wrote in his journal, “and all day long, even in choir and at Mass, I seem to be in the forest.”[i]

Six weeks later, in February 1952, comes a remarkable journal entry. Sitting on a cedar log under a tree gazing out at light blue hills in the distance, Merton saw his true self as a kind of solitary sea creature dwelling in a water cavern which knows of the world of dry land only by faint rumor. When he got free of plans and projects — the first level of the sea with its troubled surface — then he entered a deeper second level, the deep waters out of reach of storms where there was “peace, peace, peace…. We pray therein, slightly waving among the fish…. Words, as I think, do not spring from this second level. They are only meant to drown there. The question of socialization does not concern these waters. They are nobody’s property…. No questions whatever perturb their holy botany. Neutral territory. No man’s sea. I think God meant me to write about this second level.”

Still deeper down Merton was aware of a third level,

swimming in the rich darkness which is no longer thick like water but pure, like air. Starlight, and you do not know where it is coming from. Moonlight is in this prayer, stillness, waiting for the Redeemer…. Everything is charged with intelligence, though all is night. There is no speculation here. There is vigilance… Everything is spirit. Here God is adored, His coming is recognized, He is received as soon as He is expected and because He is expected He is received, but He has passed by sooner than He arrived, He was gone before He came. He returned forever. He never yet passed by and already He had disappeared for all eternity. He is and He is not. Everything and Nothing. Not light not dark, not high not low, not this side not that side. Forever and forever. In the wind of His passing the angels cry, “The Holy One is gone.” Therefore I lie dead in the air of their wings…. It is a strange awakening to find the sky inside you and beneath you and above you and all around you so that your spirit is one with the sky, and all is positive night.[ii]

Silence is not silent. There is a torrent of sound even at midnight on the driest, most remote desert: breezes scraping the sand, the tireless conversation of insects, the tidal sound of one’s own breathing, the drumming of one’s heart, the roar of being. It’s an active silence, being attentive rather than speaking, praying rather than engaging in chatter. So long as we breathe, so long as our heart keeps beating, we will never hear absolute silence, but by avoiding distractions and listening to what remains, we discover that the door to silence is everywhere, even in Times Square and Piccadilly Circus. To listen is always an act of being silent. Yet finding places of relative silence can help a pilgrim discover inner silence. As Merton’s friend, the poet Bob Lax, who in his later years made his hermit-like home on the quiet Greek island of Patmos, once put it in a letter:

The thing to do with nature … is to listen to it, and watch it, and look deep into its eyes in a sense, as though you were listening to and watching a friend, not just hearing the words or even just watching the gestures but trying to guess, or get a sense, or share the spirit underneath it, trying to listen (if this isn’t too fancy) to the silence under the sound and trying to get an idea (not starting with any preconceived formulation) of what kind of silence it is.[iii]

In 1965, a few months before Merton began living as a full-time hermit, he wrote a descriptive essay, “Day of a Stranger,” about what he had so far experienced in his several years of being a part-time hermit. In it he speaks in rapturous terms of what he has been learning day-by-day in the woods of Gethsemani:

One might say I had decided to marry the silence of the forest. The sweet dark warmth of the whole world will have to be my wife. Out of the heart of that dark warmth comes the secret that is heard only in silence, but it is the root of all the secrets that are whispered by all the lovers in their beds all over the world. So perhaps I have an obligation to preserve the stillness, the silence, the poverty, the virginal point of pure nothingness which is at the center of all other loves. I attempt to cultivate this plant without contempt in the middle of the night and water it with psalms and prophecies in silence. It becomes the most rare of all the trees in the garden, at once the primordial paradise tree, the axis mundi, the cosmic axle, and the Cross…. There is only one such tree. It cannot be multiplied.

Words were so very important to Merton. One reads his books not only for his surprising and challenging insights but because he plays with the music of words as if he were playing jazz clarinet or saxophone. No one is more articulate than Merton but also no one was more aware than he of the limits of words. Like arrows, words point but they are not the target. As he once remarked to his novices, “He who follows words is destroyed.”

Merton explores this topic more deeply a letter the Venezuelan poet, Ludivico Silva:

The religion of our time, to be authentic, needs to be the kind that escapes practically all religious definition. Because there has been endless definition, endless verbalizing, and words have become gods. There are so many words that one cannot get to God as long as He is thought to be on the other side of the words. But when he is placed firmly beyond the other side of the words, the words multiply like flies and there is a great buzzing religion, very profitable, very holy, very spurious. One tries to escape it by acts of truth that fail. One’s whole being must be an act for which there can be found no word. This is the primary meaning of faith. On this basis, other dimensions of belief can be made credible. Otherwise not. My whole being must be a yes and an amen and an exclamation that is not heard. Only after that is there any point in exclamations and even after that there is no point in exclamations. One’s acts must be part of the same silent exclamation. It is because this is dimly and unconsciously realized by everyone, and because no one can reconcile this with the state of division and alienation in which we find ourselves, that they all without meaning it gravitate toward the big exclamation that means nothing and says nothing: Boom. The triumph of speech, when all the words have worn out, and when everybody still thinks that there remain an infinite amount of truths to be uttered. If only they could realize that nothing has to be uttered. Utterance makes sense only when it is spontaneous and free…. [This] is where the silence of the woods comes in. Not that there is something new to be thought and discovered in the woods, but only that the trees are all sufficient exclamations of silence, and one works there, cutting wood, clearing ground, cutting grass, cooking soup, drinking fruit juice, sweating, washing, making fire, smelling smoke, sweeping, etc. This is religion. The further one gets away from this, the more one sinks in the mud of words and gestures. The flies gather.[iv]

In February 1962, when I first met Merton, his long-nurtured fantasy of living as a hermit was in its second year of being realized. His abbot, Dom James Fox, had authorized the construction of a small cinderblock building that stood on the edge of the woods about a mile north of the monastery. Officially it was a place for Merton to meet with non-Catholic visitors for ecumenical dialogue, but from day one Merton saw it primarily as his hermitage. Merton had lit the first fire in the hearth in December 1960. It was, he wrote in his journal, “the first time in my life I ever really felt I had a home and that my waiting and looking were ended.”[v] A narrow bedroom behind the main room was part of the structure. Occasionally he had permission to stay overnight, but it would not be until the summer of 1965, three-and-a-half years later, that it became his full-time home. At that point Merton became the first Trappist hermit in modern times. He had become a citizen of the wilderness, much as Thoreau had been when he moved into his log cabin on the side of Walden Pond.

When I came to visit, the hermitage already had a lived-in look. It was winter so there was no sitting on the porch. We sat inside, with Merton regularly adding wood to the blaze in the fireplace. There was a Japanese calendar on the wall with a Zen brush drawing for every month of the year — not even the year was correct — and a black-on-black painting of the cross by Merton’s friend, Ad Reinhart. There was a bookcase and, next to it, a long table that served as a desk placed on the inside of the hermitage’s one large window offering a view of fields and hills. A large timber cross had been erected on the lawn, with a wagon wheel, symbol of wholeness and convergence, leaning against it. On the table was a portable Swiss-made Hermes typewriter. Off to one side of the hermitage was an outhouse which Merton shared with a black snake.

My being a guest at that time was linked to another aspect of Merton’s vocation. If he had one foot in the wilderness, he also had one foot in the world. In the framework of the world-wilderness duality, I was from the other side of the world side of the border: Monasticism, on the other hand, was generally thought of as a radical exodus from “the world,” the “world” meaning the arena of headlines, wars, propaganda, slogans, alienation, elections, noise, controversy, borders, competition, greed, etc. In theory the “world” was on the other of the monastery walls, but in reality — consider any photo of the whole earth — there is no border between here and there. As the fifties ended, Merton was becoming intensely aware of the underlying unity. “The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream,” he wrote. He could not turn a blind eye toward the world, its suffering and its march toward doomsday.

In his essay “Rain and the Rhinoceros,” he wrote:

There are always a few people who are in the woods at night, in the rain (because if there were not the world would have ended), and I am one of them… Of course at three-thirty A.M. [a nuclear-armed B-52 bomber] goes over, red light winking low under the clouds, skimming the wooded summits on the south side of the valley, loaded with strong medicine. Very strong. Strong enough to burn up all these woods….[vi]

A lone man listening to noises most of us sleep through. The root meaning of the word “monk” is the Greek word monokos — a person who is alone, a solitary. One does not have to belong to a monastery to experience and benefit from inner solitude. In his rain-drenched essay, Merton stresses the positive significance of being alone.

At the time of my first visit, I was part of the Catholic Worker community in New York City whose activities were largely urban. We were engaged in welcoming and assisting the down-and-out while engaging in occasional acts of protest. The leader of the community, Dorothy Day, had been to prison time and again for various acts of civil disobedience, most recently for repeatedly refusing to take shelter during civil defense drills. Instead she had sat praying on a park bench in front of the mayor’s office. Following Christ, in Dorothy’s view, meant following his teaching and example. He killed no one and healed many. He invited us to live lives shaped by mercy and forgiveness. He neither advocated war nor took part in any. He was a threat to no one’s life.

Only a few months before my visit, in October 1961, The Catholic Worker had published its first essay by Merton, a text with the title “The Root of War Is Fear.” It was an expanded version of a chapter of the book he was then writing, New Seeds of Contemplation. In this chapter Merton stressed the human tendency to accuse the other rather than to accuse oneself, so that, failing to recognize our own co-responsibility for evils that lead toward war, we come to see war — even nuclear war — as necessary and justified, forced on us by the evil other. We pray for peace while spending a “fabulous amount of money, planning, energy, anxiety and care” on the production of weapons of mass annihilation. “It does not even seem to enter our minds,” Merton wrote, “that there might be some incongruity in praying to the God of peace, the God who told us to love one another as He had loved us, who warned us that they who took the sword would perish by it, and at the same time annihilate not thousands but millions of civilians and soldiers, women and children without discrimination.” Only love, he wrote, “can exorcise the fear which is at the root of war.”

In the several pages that he added to the Catholic Worker version, Merton summoned his readers to embrace nonviolent methods of conflict resolution and to work for the abolition of war:

What are we to do? The duty of the Christian in this crisis is to strive with all his power and intelligence, with his faith, his hope in Christ, and love for God and man, to do the one task which God has imposed upon us in the world today. That task is to work for the total abolition of war. There can be no question that unless war is abolished the world will remain constantly in a state of madness and desperation in which, because of the immense destructive power of modern weapons, the danger of catastrophe will be imminent and probable at every moment everywhere. Unless we set ourselves immediately to this task, both as individuals and in our political and religious groups, we tend by our very passivity and fatalism to cooperate with the destructive forces that are leading inexorably to war…. Christians must become active in every possible way, mobilizing all their resources for the fight against war. First of all there is much to be studied, much to be learned. Peace is to be preached, nonviolence is to be explained as a practical method…. Prayer and sacrifice must be used as the most effective spiritual weapons in the war against war, and like all weapons, they must be used with deliberate aim: not just with a vague aspiration for peace and security, but against violence and war. This implies that we are also willing to sacrifice and restrain our own instinct for violence and aggressiveness in our relations with other people. We may never succeed in this campaign, but whether we succeed or not, the duty is evident. It is the great Christian task of our time… for the survival of the human race itself depends upon it….[vii]

In the issues of The Catholic Worker that followed Merton wrote more on the topic. Such writing got him into a great deal of trouble.

Since the Reformation, censorship had been deeply embedded in Catholic life. A Catholic writing on theological topics was required to submit his or her books for scrutiny to an official censor who might in time grant a declaration of nihil obstat (Latin for “without error”), which would clear the way for the local bishop to give the book his imprimatur (“let it be printed”). For a Trappist author, the process was still more complex, involving prior approbation by censors within the order before the monk’s abbot gave permission for the book to be forwarded to the bishop for final approval. For the Trappists, it was not enough that a book or article be free of theological error; the topic also had to be deemed suitable for a Trappist to address. “The abbots-general in the fifties and sixties kept an eagle eye on Merton’s writings,” one older Trappist told me. “Their view was that prayer and weeping, not social commentary, were the province of monks.”

It became increasingly difficult for Merton to get his war-and-peace-related articles into print as some of the monks appointed as censors considered Merton’s views on war inappropriate if not outrageous. There is a document in the archive of the Thomas Merton Center in Louisville that gives a sense of the opposition Merton was facing within his own order after October 1961. Here we have an unnamed abbot of another American Trappist community writing to the Abbot General in Rome, Dom Gabriel Sortais, warning him of the scandal being caused by Merton’s anti-war writings:

There is one further matter, Reverend Father, which I hesitate to speak of but which I feel I should. We have, in the United States, a weekly paper [in fact monthly] called “The Catholic Worker.” This is a very radical paper, which some Americans believe is a tool of the Communists. Fr. Louis (under the name Thomas Merton) has been writing for it frequently…. The name “Thomas Merton” is almost synonymous in America with “Trappist.” Thus quite a number of people believe that he is expressing the Trappist outlook…

The writer goes on to report that a military intelligence officer had visited his monastery and had spoken with him “concerning Father Louis.” [Louis was Merton’s monastic name.] He concludes his letter by acknowledging that many have benefitted from Merton’s “spiritual works,” but:

[I]t is difficult to understand how [Father Louis] can express himself so strongly on questions as to whether the United States should test nuclear weapons and also the wisdom of building fallout shelters. It is hard to see how — as an enclosed religious — he has access to enough facts to pass a prudent judgment on such matters.

Similar criticism was made in an editorial published in an archdiocesan newspaper, The Washington Catholic Standard. Here Merton was described “as an absolute pacifist” whose recent writings ignored “authoritative Catholic utterances” and made “unwarranted charges about the intention of our government towards disarmament.”

At the end of April 1962, Merton received a letter from his order’s Abbot General forbidding him to publish any war-related writings because, said Dom Gabriel Sortais, writing about war and peace “falsifies the message of the contemplative life.”[viii]

Merton wrote at length to me about this. Here’s an extract:

I have been trying to finish my book on peace [Peace in the Post-Christian Era] and have succeeded in time for the axe to fall…. For a long time I have been anticipating trouble with the higher superiors and now I have it. The orders are, no more writing about peace. This is transparently arbitrary and uncomprehending, but doubtless I have to make the best of it…. In substance I am being silenced on the subject of war and peace. This I know is not a very encouraging thing. It implies all sorts of very disheartening consequences as regards the whole cause of peace. It reflects an astounding incomprehension of the seriousness of the present crisis in its religious aspect. It reflects insensitivity to Christian and Ecclesiastic values, and to the real sense of the monastic vocation.

As Merton saw it, the monk was vocationally obliged to be among those most attentive to what was going on in the world at large and raise a prophetic voice in times of crisis:

The problem, from the point of view of the Church and its mission, is of course this. The validity of the Church depends precisely on spiritual renewal, uninterrupted, continuous, and deep. Obviously this renewal is to be expressed in the historical context, and will call for a real spiritual understanding of historical crises, an evaluation of them in terms of their inner significance and in terms of man’s growth and the advancement of truth in man’s world: in other words, the establishment of the “kingdom of God.” The monk is the one supposedly attuned to the inner spiritual dimension of things. If he hears nothing, and says nothing, then the renewal as a whole will be in danger and may be completely sterilized. But these authoritarian minds believe that the function of the monk is not to see or hear any new dimension, simply to support the already existing viewpoints precisely insofar as and because they are defined for him by somebody else. Instead of being in the advance guard, he is in the rear with the baggage, confirming all that has been done by the officials…. [The monk] must be an eye that sees nothing except what is carefully selected for him to see. An ear that hears nothing except what it is advantageous for the managers for him to hear. We know what Christ said about such ears and eyes.

Merton’s own abbot, Dom James Fox, saw a loophole in the silencing order. If Merton was prohibited from writing about war for commercial publishers, non-commercial publication on a small scale by Merton’s own monastery was a different matter. With Dom James’s permission, a mimeographed edition of Peace in the Post-Christian Era, for controlled distribution, was run off, the first printing followed not long afterward by a second. By the end of 1962 there were five or six hundred copies of the book in circulation. Hot item that it was, few copies stayed long at any one address. Within a few months Merton’s banned book must have reached thousands of attentive readers, many of them people of influence. One recipient was Merton-correspondent Ethel Kennedy, who may well have shared it both with her husband Robert and her brother-in-law, President John Kennedy.

To the credit of Dom Gabriel Sortais, in 1964 he permitted copies of the mimeographed edition of Peace in the Post-Christian Era to be circulated to the bishops and theologians participating in the final session of the Second Vatican Council where Merton’s voice played a part in shaping the one formal condemnation issued by that Council:

Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and humanity, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.

It follows, the Council fathers declared, that conscientious objection to participation in war must be universally recognized and respected. “Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of each human being,” the text read. “There we are alone with God whose voice echoes in our depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor.” The express recognition of conscientious objection marked a major turning point in Church teaching. For centuries, Catholics in every country had been told to obey their rulers, submit to conscription, and do what they were ordered to do, assuring them that, were they made party to a sin by their obedience, the guilt would lie with the rulers rather than with themselves. Those who obey commands which condemn the innocent and defenseless to death were described as “criminal.”

This lecture has been both too long and not long enough. My focus has been limited to only a brief exploration of one aspect of Merton’s engagement with “the world.” Several topics that were important for him — for example racism and abuse of the environment — have been left unmentioned. But time’s up. Let me make just one final observation:

A Trappist hermit, living in a cinderblock shelter in the wilderness of Kentucky, paid such close attention to the nightly passage overhead of a Strategic Air Command B-52 bomber, whose cargo more than equaled hundreds of Hiroshimas and Nagasakis, that he played a part in shaping one of the most important results of the only Council of the Catholic Church in the twentieth century: its condemnation of total war and its affirmation of conscience, including our right, even our duty, to say no to killing. In the fifties no such change of direction could have been imagined not only by the average church member but even by the average member of the College of Cardinals.

We owe a great deal to Merton’s attentive eyes and ears. Thank God he had one foot in the wilderness and one foot in the world. Thank God for this unwalled and undivided man.

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[i]           Sign of Jonas, 337.

[ii]          Sign of Jonas, 338-39.

[iii]         Letter by Bob Lax to Jubilee magazine staff, quoted by Jim Harford in his book Merton and Friends; New York: Continuum, 2006, p 105-6.

[iv] The Courage for Truth: Letters to Writers by Thomas Merton, letter dated 10 April 1965, 225

[v] Entry dated 26 December 1960.

[vi] Raids on the Unspeakable, 13-14.

[vii] The full text of the paragraphs added to the Catholic Worker version of his essay are found in The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers, Jim Forest, Orbis Books, 28-32.

[viii] See Merton’s letter to Jacques Maritain dated 12 February 1963; Thomas Merton, The Courage for Truth: Letters to Writers, 36.

Brave Pianist: Maria Yudina

Maria Yudina

by Jim Forest

Armando Iannucci’s recent film, The Death of Stalin, briefly filled the two Moscow cinemas where it was being shown, but then was abruptly banned. The movie was described as an “unfriendly act by the British intellectual class” by Nikolai Starikov, head of the Russian Great Fatherland Party, and as part of a “Western plot to destabilize Russia by causing rifts in society,” by the head of the Public Council of the Russian Ministry of Culture.

In fact the film provides, in the form of a Dr. Strangelove-sort of black comedy, a remarkably accurate portrait of the end of Stalin’s ruthless reign and the subsequent battle for leadership among those in his inner circle. Though only Stalin looks like his historical self, the casting is superb. My only disappointment was the portrayal of the great Russian pianist, Maria Veniaminovna Yudina.

In the film she is young and glamorous and, though despising Stalin, willing to make a special recording for him in exchange for a bribe of thousands of rubles.

The actual Yudina was very different. I have come to know her indirectly through the memoirs of her friend and one-time classmate, the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, as related by Solomon Volkov in his book, Testimony, and also through Tatiana Voogd, a founder of our Russian Orthodox parish in Amsterdam, who knew Yudina personally and even slept under her piano — “the most sheltered place in her apartment,” she told me.

Born to a Jewish family in 1899, Maria Yudina converted to the Orthodox faith at the age of 20. It was her fate to live through the Bolshevik Revolution (she was 18 at the time) and its aftermath, seeing many of her dearest friends and colleagues disappear into the Gulag. Fearlessly, even recklessly, she wore a cross even while teaching or performing in public—an affirmation of belief at a time when any display of religious faith could cost one’s work, one’s freedom, even one’s life. In contrast to the on-screen portrayal, she lived an ascetic life, wearing no makeup, spending little on herself, and dressing simply. “I had the impression,” said Shostakovich, “that Yudina wore the same black dress during her entire long life, it was so worn and soiled.”

For her, music was a way of proclaiming her faith in a period when printing presses were more stringently policed than pianos. “Yudina saw music in a mystical light. For instance she saw Bach’s Goldberg Variations as a series of illustrations to the Holy Bible,” said Shostakovich. “She always played as though she were giving a sermon.”

Maria Yudina

She would not only perform piano works but sometimes pause during concerts to read poetry by such writers as Boris Pasternak, himself unable to publish at the time. (Pasternak did the first reading of his novel Doctor Zhivago at Yudina’s apartment in 1947.)

Yudina was notorious among friends for her inability to keep anything of value for herself. Shostakovich recalled:

She came to see me once and said that she was living in a miserable little room where she could neither work nor rest. So I signed a petition, I went to see various bureaucrats, I asked a lot of people to help, I took up a lot of people’s time. With great difficulty we got an apartment for Yudina. You would think that everything was fine and that life could go on. A short time later she came to me again and asked for help in obtaining an apartment for herself. “What? But we got an apartment for you. What do you need another one for?” “I gave the apartment away to a poor old woman.”

Shostakovich heard from a friend that he had made a loan to Yudina of five rubles:

“I broke a window in my room, it’s drafty and so cold, I can’t live like that,” she had told them. Naturally, they gave her the money—it was winter. A while later they visited her, and it was as cold in her room as it was outside and the broken window was stuffed with a rag. “How can this be, Maria Veniaminovna? We gave you money to fix the window.” And she replied, “I gave it for the needs of the church.”

Shostakovich, who regarded religion as superstition, didn’t approve. “The church may have various needs,” he protested, “but the clergy doesn’t sit around in the cold, after all, with broken windows. Self-denial should have a rational limit.” He accused her of behaving like a yurodivye, the Russian word for a holy fool, a special category of sanctity.

Her public profession of faith was not without cost. Despite her genius as a musician, from time to time she was banned from concert halls, and not once in her life was she allowed to travel outside Russia. Shostakovich remembered:

Her religious position was under constant artillery and even cavalry attack [at the music school in Leningrad]. Serebriakov, the director then, had a habit of making so-called “raids of the light brigade”…. He realized that Yudina was a first-class pianist, but he wasn’t willing to risk his own position. One of the charges of the light brigade was made specifically against her. The cavalry rushed into Yudina’s class and demanded of Yudina: “Do you believe in God?” She replied in the affirmative. “Was she promoting religious propaganda among her students?” She replied that the Constitution didn’t forbid it. A few days later a transcript of the conversation made by “an unknown person” appeared in a Leningrad paper, which also printed a caricature—Yudina in nun’s robes surrounded by kneeling students. And the caption was something about preachers appearing at the Conservatoire. The cavalry trod heavily, even though it was the light brigade. Naturally, Yudina was dismissed after that.

From time to time she all but signed her own death warrant. Perhaps the most remarkable story in Shostakovich’s memoir concerns one such incident, dramatized inaccurately in the film:

In his final years, Stalin seemed more and more like a madman, and I think his superstition grew. The “Leader and Teacher” sat locked up in one of his many dachas, amusing himself in bizarre ways. They say he cut out pictures and photos from old magazines and newspapers, glued them onto paper, and hung them on the walls…. [He] didn’t let anyone in to see him for days at a time. He listened to the radio a lot. Once Stalin called the Radio Committee … and asked if they had a record of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, which had been heard on the radio the day before. “Played by Yudina,” he added. They told Stalin that of course they had it. Actually, there was no record, the concert had been live. But they were afraid to say no to Stalin, no one ever knew what the consequences might be. A human life meant nothing to him. All you could do was agree, submit, be a yes-man, a yes-man to a madman.

Yudina later told me that they had to send the conductor home, he was so scared he couldn’t think. They called another conductor, who trembled and got everything mixed up, confusing the orchestra. Only a third conductor was in any shape to finish the recording.

I think this is a unique event in the history of recording—I mean, changing conductors three times in one night. Anyway, the record was ready by morning. They made one single copy in record time and sent it to Stalin. Now that was a record. A record in yes-ing.

Soon after, Yudina received an envelope with twenty thousand rubles. She was told it came on the express orders of Stalin. Then she wrote him a letter. I know about this letter from her, and I know that the story seems improbable. Yudina had many quirks, but I can say this—she never lied. I’m certain that her story is true. Yudina wrote something like this in her letter: “I thank you, Joseph Vissarionovich, for your aid. I will pray for you day and night and ask the Lord to forgive your great sins before the people and the country. The Lord is merciful and He will forgive you. I gave the money to the church that I attend.”

And Yudina sent this suicidal letter to Stalin. He read it and didn’t say a word. They expected at least a twitch of the eyebrow. Naturally, the order to arrest Yudina was prepared and the slightest grimace would have been enough to wipe away the last traces of her. But Stalin was silent and set the letter aside in silence. The anticipated movement of the eyebrows didn’t come.

Nothing happened to Yudina. They say that her recording of the Mozart was on the record player when the “Leader and Teacher” was found dead in his dacha. It was the last thing he had listened to.

Shostakovich found Yudina’s open display of belief foolish, yet one senses within his complaints both envy and awe. In a time of heart-stopping fear, here was someone as fearless as Saint George before the dragon, someone who preferred giving away her few rubles to repairing her own broken window, who “published” with her own voice the poems of banned writers, who dared to tell Stalin that even he was not beyond God’s mercy and forgiveness. She had a large and pure heart.

No wonder her grave in Moscow has been a place of pilgrimage ever since she died, November 19, 1970.

* * *
Parts of this text were first published in Ladder of the Beatitudes (Orbis Books). This revised and expanded version was published online by Orthodoxy in Dialogue 1 June 2018: https://orthodoxyindialogue.com/2018/06/01/brave-pianist-maria-yudina-by-jim-forest/#more-10289

* * *

Our friend the translator Larissa Volokhonsky adds this story:

Thank you for your excellent post about Maria Veniaminovna Yudina. I can tell you a funny story about her told by the cellist Rostropovich to one of my friends. Maybe it is a fable, but it’s funny anyway.

Once Yudina went to a storage room at the recording factory to get her copies of a record she had recorded with the music of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. She took her ten copies. The man in the storage room asked: “do you know these guys, Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart?” — “I do very well” Yudina said truthfully. “Then could you, please, take their copies to them, too, so I don’t have to wait for them?” And he gave her thirty more copies…

* * *

Bridge Dweller

walls into bridges (Len Munnik)

As someone who made his way to the Orthodox Church from a Roman Catholic background, I am often asked why I became Orthodox and how I would compare the two churches.

In the 29 years since my Orthodox chrismation, my answers to both questions have evolved, but one of the constants has been to stress that, in crossing the Great Schism’s border in an eastward direction, I neither slammed nor locked any doors and that my transition had not involved a conversion. There has been but one conversion in my life and that occurred before I was either Catholic or Orthodox — my becoming a Christian, that is an apprentice follower of Jesus. Finding a church came next.

“But after so many years a Catholic,” friends have asked, “why your turn to Orthodox Christianity?”

In the early years, I tended to stress what I didn’t like about Catholicism: its monarchical papacy, a fast-food liturgy that too often could be described as a McMass, a legalistic approach to pastoral issues such as failed marriages, its insistence that priests be celibate, its obsession with sexual sins, its insertion of the filioque into the ancient creed. (As Hilaire Belloc wrote, “The moral is / it is indeed / you must not monkey / with the Creed.”)

Taking a slightly different tack, I sometimes said that the two churches were like parallel highways that at first glance looked nearly identical but then, on closer inspection, you notice the traffic moves more slowly on the Orthodox highway and that there are no police cars. With such slow-moving vehicles, cops aren’t needed.

On the positive side of my change-of-address, I emphasized the unhurried beauty of Orthodox worship, saying that each eucharistic meal is done “at Thanksgiving Day speed …. you wouldn’t want to eat a festive meal in a hurry.” I praised the Orthodox Church for its married priesthood and its relative lack of clericalism. I contrasted Orthodoxy’s more therapeutic approach to confession with the “shopping list of sins” approach that I had so often experienced in the Catholic Church. Recalling Jesus’s request to the apostles, “Let the children come unto me,” I asked if the Orthodox admission of children to communion as soon as they are baptized was not wiser than to delay communion until the would-be communicant reaches “the age of reason”? After all, I pointed out, few of us ever reach the age of reason. I argued that even Orthodoxy’s notorious slowness to change is more a plus than a minus in a culture in which short-lived ideological winds are blowing at hurricane force, with theological hemlines rising and falling as the winds howl.

But, Catholic friends would ask, are there no areas in which Catholicism is more admirable? Is there nothing you miss?

I freely admit that there are aspects of Orthodox Christianity that lag significantly behind its eastern counterpart, the most significant of which is tribalism. Catholics, in my experience, are far more likely to see themselves as members of a world church, a church in which national identity is secondary, a church on which the sun never sets, a church for whom all the dotted lines on world maps are provisional. One might be Korean, Irish, Italian, Polish, American, et cetera, but recognize these words are mere adjectives, whereas for too many Orthodox being Greek, Russian, Serbian or Bulgarian comes first. One was Orthodox because having an Orthodox identity was an essential aspect of having a particular national identity.

Another especially praiseworthy aspect of modern Catholicism is its conciliar teaching in regard to war. The one and only actual condemnation that was made by the Second Vatican Council was its condemnation of weapons of mass destruction and of city destruction. At the same time the bishops endorsed conscientious objection, praised those who refuse to obey unjust orders, and urged nonviolent approaches to conflict resolution. One seeks in vain to hear similar statements from the various Orthodox jurisdictions; instead one finds weapons, even nuclear weapons, still being blessed by priests and even hierarchs. Were a Greek or Russian Orthodox Christian to declare himself a conscientious objector, how many Orthodox bishops would give him support? We Orthodox prefer to remember that such saints as Martin of Tours were soldiers and forget that later on they renounced military service as inappropriate for Christ’s followers.

I have even learned to appreciate the papacy, which has been slowly undergoing its own reformation, most notably in the past half century. The pope is indeed a symbol of unity as well as the Christian voice most often heard in the world as a whole. Orthodox bishops are rarely heard beyond the borders of their citizenship.

“Okay,” various friends have said, “thanks to all you’ve said, it’s now even more puzzling that you’re in the Orthodox Church.”

I often respond with a joke: “Count me as a Catholic on loan to the Orthodox Church.” It’s not a perfect joke. Things on loan are normally returned to the lender. I am where God has nudged me to be and expect to spend the rest of my life in the Orthodox Church and gratefully so. But I remain deeply indebted to my years in the Catholic Church and see myself living and praying on an under-construction bridge crossing the river that flows between east and west in Christianity. Whether Orthodox or Catholic, we have so much to learn from each other.

— Jim Forest

29 November 2017
for the blog “Orthodoxy in Dialog”

* * *

Ten Things I Learned from Daniel Berrigan

By Jim Forest

I first met Dan Berrigan thanks to Dorothy Day. In the latter part of 1961 she had brought me with her to a small gathering in an apartment on the west edge of Harlem in uptown Manhattan. At the time I was managing editor of The Catholic Worker. Dan had come down from Syracuse to attend. He was a lean, wiry man with closely-cropped black hair dressed in tailored black clericals and a Roman collar. He was introduced to us as a poet who had won the Lamont Poetry Prize and was currently teaching theology at Le Moyne College, a Jesuit school, where he also had founded an international house at which students were living in community in preparation for justice-oriented work in Latin America.

Introductions over, Dan pulled a sheaf of paper from an inner jacket pocket and proceeded to read aloud an analysis of Catholic social teaching and the impact of Pope John XXIII. I have no doubt that it was an excellent essay, suggestive in style and content of all that would, in the coming years, become so widely appreciated in Dan’s writings. His prose always bore the stamp of his poetry. For better or worse, however, honesty requires the admission of my having a hard time keeping my eyes open and my ears alert — I must have had too little sleep the night before. I became more attentive during the discussion, but by then it was late and all too quickly we had to go our separate ways.

As we closed the apartment door behind us and began making our way back to the subway, I recall Dorothy was annoyed. “Just like a priest!” she snapped. “He didn’t leave room for anyone else to talk!” But on the subway she became more positive, recalling Dan bringing high school students to the Catholic Worker in the mid-fifties. The next day she asked me to write “Father Berrigan” — she never referred to priests informally — and request a copy of his paper. “I need to read it again. It might be something for us to publish.” This was a pattern I gradually came to anticipate in Dorothy, irritable one day, more positive the next.

After that first encounter, I didn’t see Dan again until a few years later, mid-June 1964, when he was on sabbatical and I was one of several Catholic participants in a traveling European seminar headed to Prague, where we would participate in an ecumenical conference of Christians, east and west, concerned about peace.

Dan was already in Paris, our first stop, when we arrived. At the time he was living as chaplain with a group of students on the Left Bank. At first sight I didn’t recognize him. The tailored clericals and Roman collar had been replaced with a black cotton turtleneck, trim black chino slacks, a faded green windbreaker jacket, and a suede leather tote bag slung over his shoulder, his mobile library and wine cellar combined. The transformation of clothing was less striking than Dan’s face. Three years of breakthroughs and setbacks had marked him. In 1961 he had struck me as a well-turned-out cleric taking root in academia like so many bright, up-and-coming Jesuits. Now his face seemed blizzard-worn, the pink blown away. In its place was bleached Maine rock etched with experiences of winter.

What had brought him, I asked, from Syracuse to Paris? It was due, he said, to his liturgical innovations — saying the Mass in English well before such usage was officially authorized — plus his engagement in the local civil rights movement, jeopardizing contributions to the university. These impolitic activities had caused tension between him and the college administration. After six years teaching theology at Le Moyne, Dan had been given a year-long sabbatical in France. “Was this meant as a sugar-coated exile?” I asked. “Very likely,” Dan responded, “but what a place to be!”

Our three-day Parisian stay included street searching, river walking, bread buying and wine sipping plus meetings with several remarkable people, including two “worker priests,” plain-clothed men whose mission was in factories rather than parishes. We also spent several hours with Jean Daniélou, fellow Jesuit and eminent scholar of the early church. Daniélou spoke to us about theologians of the first centuries of the Christian era, such saints as Gregory of Nyssa and his brother Basil the Great, who, using a modern term, could be described as pacifists, that is people for whom killing other human beings for any reason was a rejection of Christ and his gospel.

We traveled together from Paris to Rome and from there on to Prague. One night in Prague the several Catholics who were participating in the seminar resolved to found, on our return to the U.S., a group we christened the Catholic Peace Fellowship. Our main goal, we decided, would be to organize Catholic opposition to the Vietnam War, then in its early stages as far as America was concerned, and as part of that endeavor launch a national program to make known the fact that conscientious objection to war was an option not only for members of specifically pacifist “peace churches” like the Quakers and Mennonites but for Catholics as well.

Both of us back in New York, Dan was assigned to be one of the editors of Jesuit Missions, a monthly magazine, and I left my newspaper job to work fulltime for the Catholic Peace Fellowship. Tom Cornell, another former editor of The Catholic Worker, soon joined me. Beginning in January 1965, the three of us normally met once a week in Dan’s one-room apartment for Mass, to read letters the CPF had received, and to decide on other aspects of our work.

How to respond to the worsening conflict in Vietnam was a factor in every meeting. “I returned to the United States,” Dan later recalled, “convinced of one simple thing — the war in Vietnam could only grow worse…. [We Americans] were about to repeat the already bankrupt experience of the French [whose colonial war in Indochina had ended in defeat]…. I [was] afflicted with a sense that my life was being truly launched — for the first time — upon mortal and moral events that might indeed overwhelm me, as the tidal violence of world events churned them into an even greater fury…. I had a sense that this war would be the making or breaking of [my brother Phil and me].”

One of the Catholic Peace Fellowship’s most significant achievements in the years that followed was publishing a booklet, Catholics and Conscientious Objection, that went through more than 300,000 copies. I was the author; it remains my one runaway best seller. At fifteen cents a copy, it was out of no one’s reach. That booklet, whose orthodoxy was certified by an imprimatur from the Archdiocese of New York, was a factor in explaining how it is that so many thousands of young Catholics refused to fight in Vietnam.

Dan was of course pleased that our work was having a certain impact in building opposition to the war, but by 1968 decided it was time not only for opposition but resistance. On the 17th of May, with his brother Phil and seven others, he burned 378 draft records in a parking lot adjacent to a draft center in a Baltimore suburb. The event was headline news. The Catonsville Nine, as they were known, are still being talked about.

Dan’s was nothing if not a writer. When he died in April 2016, age 94, at a Jesuit nursing home on the Fordham campus, he left a legacy of more than sixty books of prose and poetry. But the text he is best known for was quite short — a two-page declaration in which he explained what led him to Catonsville. Here are some extracts:

“Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise. For we are sick at heart. Our hearts give us no rest for thinking of the Land of Burning Children….

“All of us who act against the law turn to the poor of the world, to the Vietnamese, to the victims, to the soldiers who kill and die for the wrong reasons, or for no reason at all, because they were so ordered by the authorities of that public order which is in effect a massive institutionalized disorder. We say: Killing is disorder. Life and gentleness and community and unselfishness are the only order we recognize.

“For the sake of that order we risk our liberty, our good name…. How many … must die before our voices are heard? How many must be tortured, dislocated, starved, maddened? How long must the world’s resources be raped in the service of legalized murder? When, at what point, will you say no to this war? We have chosen to say, with the gift of our liberty, if necessary our lives: the violence stops here, the death stops here, the suppression of the truth stops here, this war stops here.

“Redeem the times! The times are inexpressibly evil. Christians pay conscious, indeed religious tribute, to Caesar and Mars, by the approval of overkill tactics, by brinkmanship, by nuclear liturgies, by racism, by support of genocide. They embrace their society with all their heart and abandon the cross. They pay lip service to Christ and military service to the powers of death….”

The nine defendants argued in court that attempts to impede an immoral and illegal war — to prevent the commission of war crimes — should be seen as justified, like running a red light to get a gravely injured child to the hospital. Not surprisingly, the court was not open to such arguments. For a time the nine, though convicted and sentenced to three years confinement, were free while the judgment was being appealed.

During that period of court-authorized freedom, Dan wrote a play based on the trial of the nine. It’s something of a modern Greek drama in the tradition of Antigone. It was also made into a film produced by Gregory Peck. The script has become assigned reading in many classrooms. The play continues to be performed all over the world.

Declining to exit the stage in order to begin serving his sentence as scheduled, Dan went underground. Sheltering in a Sherwood Forest of friends and friends of friends, Dan led the FBI on a Robin Hood-like chase that lasted four months. Daniel Berrigan, Jesuit priest, poet and theologian, was placed on the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted” list. In the annals of crime in America, he was the only person ever promoted to that august rank who never possessed a deadly weapon and posed a threat to no one’s life. They should have added a sentence: “This man is disarmed and dangerous.” While in hiding Dan did television and newspaper interviews and even preached in church one Sunday morning. I had a meeting with him one evening in an apartment a short walk from the FBI’s Manhattan headquarters. Dan seemed to be available to anyone and everyone except FBI agents. Finally he was found and handcuffed while staying in a hermitage provided by friends on Block Island. Not long afterward he and Phil were on the cover of Time magazine.

It takes a book to review all that happened in Dan’s life in the decades that followed — a remarkable journey in which the homeless, the gravely ill, those dying of AIDs, the unborn, all played a part. Dan taught in various schools and traveled widely. New books by him appeared every year. He was arrested over and over again for acts of protest. Dan’s life was shaped by the conviction that God does not sanction killing and that the way to heaven is the way of nonviolence and mercy. If you are drawn to take a closer look I recommend my biography of him. Rather than present year-by-year details of his remarkable life, instead let me share with you ten things that I suggest we can learn from his life.

1) Follow Jesus. This is what the Society of Jesus is all about, and indeed the main choices in Dan’s life make no sense apart from the Gospels. When money came his way, he gave it away. He owned practically nothing. He wore the same shirts and trousers year after year. Day or night, he was willing to put aside what he was doing and go where needed, often the bedside of someone faceto-face with death. “If you want to follow Jesus,” he famously said, “you have to look good on wood.” Followers of Christ were summoned to a life of sacrifice. In his introduction to a book entitled Quotations from Chairman Jesus, Dan wrote:

I can only tell you what I believe.
I believe I cannot be saved by foreign policies.
I cannot be saved by sexual revolutions.
I cannot be saved by the gross national product.
I cannot be saved by nuclear deterrents.
I cannot be saved by aldermen, priests, artists,
plumbers, city planners, social engineers,
nor by the Vatican,
nor by the World Buddhist Association
nor by Hitler nor by Joan of Arc
nor by angels and archangels,
nor by powers and dominations
I can be saved only by Jesus Christ.

A reporter once asked Dan, “Do you believe that Jesus is coming again?” Dan replied, “He never left.”

2) Christians should be notorious for their refusal to kill anyone. This was indeed the case in the early Church. It’s an aspect of the Christian past many Christians today would prefer not to know about. People for whom national flags are at the center of their identity will be scandalized by those who, like Dan Berrigan, would rather die than kill. In our world, the readiness to kill is widely regarded as the ultimate proof of patriotism. Millions of American Christians can more easily recite the Pledge of Allegiance than the Beatitudes, the seventh of which is “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Many Christians today — Dan was an exception — are made uncomfortable by the disturbing fact that, as the Gospels bear witness, Jesus waved no flags, killed no one, and participated in no wars. On the contrary, he preached love of enemies and practiced what he preached, even forgiving those who nailed him to a cross. Just days before his execution he rode a meek donkey rather than a war horse into Jerusalem. On the other hand he was no wimp. He famously overturned the tables of bankers who were engaged in money-changing in the Temple, but the whip he used to expel them threatened no one’s life. It stung and shamed but did not wound. His last healing miracle before his crucifixion was to repair the wound of one of the men arresting him. Dan Berrigan was one of the rare Christians who tried to shape his life around the Jesus who heals rather than sheds blood. Dan did his best to protect life, whether in the womb, in a death row cell, or in a war zone. In an open letter to a radical group called the Weather Underground that had turned to using bombs as a means of protest, Dan wrote, “No principle is worth the sacrifice of a single human being.”

3) In order to love our enemies we should meet our enemies. Another way of putting it is to say we need to cross borders until we realize that all borders are dotted lines. To give one example of border crossing, during the Vietnam War one of Dan’s significant actions was to go to Hanoi in order to bring home several American bomber pilots being held in prison in what was then North Vietnam. Night after night Dan had to take shelter while bombs shook the earth. “Being an American under American bombs was an education without parallel,” he wrote after his return. “It was as though the heavens had erupted and poured out the contempt of the gods.” Not only in the days but years that followed, what haunted Dan most were the faces of Vietnamese children, wide-eyed, terrified, sitting motionless in bomb shelters, innocent of war yet among its primary victims. One of Dan’s Hanoi poems, “Children in the Shelter,” focuses on the silent gaze of three children in the same hiding place:

Imagine; three of them.
As though survival
were a rat’s word,
and a rat’s death
waited there at the end
and I must have
in the century’s boneyard
heft of flesh and bone in my arms

I picked up the littlest
a boy, his face
breaded with rice (his sister calmly feeding him
as we climbed down).

In my arms fathered
in a moment’s grace, the messiah
of all my tears. I bore, reborn
a Hiroshima child from hell.

Holding in his arms children whose deaths would have tearlessly been written off as “collateral damage,” it became impossible for Dan not to love the enemy. The enemy was no longer a gray cardboard cut-out with a political label pasted on it but a unique and vulnerable human being made in the image of God.

4) Stay close to the sacraments. I recall Dan saying, “Jesus founded a church, not a book club. We will not study our way into heaven.” Dan stressed that the Last Judgment is not a theological exam in which the winners are the clever ones with the highest scores — mercy is what matters, not IQ. But what is the church, I asked. After much conversation, we agreed on an imprecise definition that went something like this: the church is a mystery hidden in institutional rags. It’s where we go for bread that is more than bread and wine that is more than wine. The church is both guardian of the word — the sacred texts — and curator of the sacraments. Not that it’s always the caretaker one would wish for. For too many popes, bishops and priests, the church has been a base for a ladder-climbing career. Yet we’ve never been without saints, loads of them, ordinary lower-case “s” saints, that is people who in one way or another lead Christ-shaped lives. Dan was one such witness, while his own mentors included Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.

Among the great joys of life was joining Dan in the celebration of the Mass. The style of our bread-breaking was as simple and graceful in line as a Shaker chair. A prayer for forgiveness was followed by intercession for friends who were ill or in difficulty. We took turns reading the appointed texts for the day plus perhaps a supplementary reading from a more-or-less modern source. After the readings, silence. Then some reflection on the readings. More silence. Then a simple canon prayer read by Dan from the Bible Missal, a Mass book widely used at the time. More silence. Finally, after the unspectacular miracle of consecration, came the sharing in that quiet miracle, and more silence, perhaps some more prayer, and an embrace at the end. Everything we achieved was founded on this eucharistic bedrock.

Another great help was going to confession with him. The confession with Dan that I remember best happened toward midnight in Manhattan in the mid-sixties. Dan and I were walking back toward his residence after a meeting with college students. At the time confession was becoming an unfashionable sacrament. The argument ran, “God knows, why tell a priest?” For many social activists, sin’s main validity was chiefly in the public sphere: complicity in war crimes, greedy use of the planet’s resources — social sins, sins we commit en masse. But I was unable to shake off a painful awareness that I was also guilty of sins of the old-fashioned variety.

Dan listened. Confession can be like giving birth. Births are always hard, my words were coming hard, but Dan was a patient and cheerful midwife. I finished. We walked along in the special silence of Manhattan on a rainy night, not a word from either one of us until Dan announced, “Hey, Jimmy, look at this!” We stopped. I discovered that we were in a wealthy zone of the Upper East Side and that Dan was gazing into the window of a store that sold every sort of sleep gear: silk and velvet eye masks, pillows with radios inside, pillows that provide the sounds of rain and water, down-filled pajamas, Swiss-made ear plugs, cashmere slippers, fur-trimmed blankets, silk and satin sheets. Dan was delighted. He pointed from item to item. “Look at that, Jimmy! Mink ear muffs!” I had never been invited to window-shop in a confessional before. Dan said, “This is how the other half sleeps!”

It dawned on me that the sleep-store window tour was Dan’s comment on the unexamined life, his way of laughing at the moral sleepwalk I had been owning up to. And it was a celebration. “Look, Jimmy!” Which is to say, “Jimmy, this is where you were but now you’re awake again.” Walking away from the shop, Dan said to me words I had often heard in the tight enclosure of a confessional, “With the authority I have received from the Church, in the name of Jesus Christ, I absolve you from all your sins.”

5) Stick with your commitments. The sixties was a decade in which a great many commitments unraveled for lots of people. Dan’s did not.

There was for example his unbreakable bond with the Catholic Church despite his frequently expressed criticisms of its many failures, its damaged history, its institutionalism.

Dan remained a Jesuit. This is remarkable given the fact that many Jesuits would have been pleased had Dan been severed from the Society. Expulsion came close on more than one occasion. “This is the Society’s Jonah option,” Dan told me, “with myself playing the part of whale food.” Shortly after his release from prison, Dan moved into a Jesuit residence in which not everyone was honored to have the prison-stained Daniel Berrigan in their midst. “Such arrogance!” said one elder. “He is in the Society but not of it,” said another. Happily, a few years later, he became part of another Jesuit community in which he felt truly part of a family. By the time of his death he had become one of the boasts of the Society of Jesus rather than one of its embarrassments.

In a period when celibacy was regarded by many as an indication of mental illness, Dan remained a celibate and even managed to joke about it. I recall an exchange with Dan at a Student Christian Movement conference in Sheffield, England in 1973. The question was raised, “Father Dan, would you please explain celibacy?” Without skipping a beat, Dan replied, “Forgive me, I forgot to bring my celibacy slide show.” Much laughter, but that was all the answer the questioner pried out of him.

He hung onto his family as well, including his difficult father, a good man in many respects but too often possessed by his volcanic temper. As a boy, when his dad was present, the first lions’ den Dan ever occupied was his own home.

Dan even hung onto America. His dissident actions were animated not by contempt or a desire to live elsewhere but, he remarked more than once, by “outraged love.” “Outrage” is an adjective; the key word is “love.” His patriotic labor was to help create a post-imperial America that had ceased making weapons of mass destruction, given up imposing regimes in other countries, and no longer treated anyone anywhere like Kleenex.

6) Visit the sick. In one way or another Dan undertook all the works of mercy, but perhaps none so intensely and so often as visiting the sick. For years he was a volunteer at Saint Rose’s Home, where a community of Dominican nuns and their helpers cared for penniless people dying of cancer. Next came more years of volunteer work with AIDs patients at Saint Vincent’s Hospital. Dan had a remarkable gift for connecting with people who were on the border line of the graveyard. He wasn’t embarrassed to talk about death or to hold hands with the dying. He had a talent for not coming on as a cleric whose goal was to squeeze a deathbed conversion out of you.

One of the classes Dan taught for a time was about pastoral care of the dying. Mel Hollander, a friend of mine, signed up for it not because he expected to become a pastor of any kind but because he himself was dying of cancer and thought the class might help him cope with the severe depression he was struggling with. The cancer was in an advanced state — Mel’s pale waxy skin and the bruised areas around his eyes couldn’t be ignored. During the period of silence with which Dan started his classes, his eye fell on Mel and stayed there for what seemed to Mel an eternity. At last Dan broke the silence with a question to Mel: “What’s the matter?” Mel considered for a moment giving an evasive answer but decided instead to reveal his calamity: “I’m dying. I’m dying of cancer.” Without batting an eye, Dan replied, “That must be very exciting.”

Mel told me afterward that no medication he was taking, no book he had read, had done so much good for him as those five words. They were a kind of lightning flash. In the light of that flash, Mel said, “was the resurrection of Jesus, as real as the streets of New York.” He knew at once that he was in the midst of the most remarkable experience of his life. Nose to nose with death, suddenly he felt intensely alive. Perhaps it was that flash of lightning that somehow pushed the cancer back. In any event Mel, who had come into Dan’s class expecting to die within months, lived another seven years, finally dying in a fire. In what Mel called his “extra years,” he devoted himself to work with Vietnamese refugees.

7) Avoid burn-out. Dan once remarked, “Too many people I know are over-worked and under-joyed.” Dan, however, was not under-joyed.

Dan went for a good long walk every day, often alone, sometimes with a friend, until his legs were no longer up to it. What was he doing? Praying part of the time, often just looking — at faces, at plants, at passing traffic, at shop windows. Just breathing, just being alive.

An elderly lady I used to know once advised me, “Only read things that make your heart beat.” Dan thought this was excellent guidance. The last time Dan was a guest in our home I was surprised to notice several mystery novels lying on the floor next to his bed. I’m not sure what I was expecting him to read. Maybe theology, maybe political science, maybe the news. But finding out who killed Major Green with a hatchet in the library helped keep Dan from drying out.

One of Dan’s greatest pleasures was cooking for guests. These ranged from headliners to the socially obscure — students, fellow Jesuits, people with AIDs, social activists, theater people, artists, ex-cons, pre-cons, writers, poets, diplomats, politicians… Were one to list the guests and their roles in life, you’d need a roll of paper a mile long. Dan took immense pleasure in having guests and making meals for them. The table was, he said, an outpost of heaven. When he was part of the Woodstock Jesuit community on West 98th Street, he wrote on the wall adjacent to his refrigerator this text from the great Irish abbess Saint Brigit of Kildare:

I should like a great lake of beer for the King of Kings.
I should like the angels of Heaven to be drinking it through time eternal.
I should like excellent meats of belief and pure piety.
I should like flails of penance at my house.
I should like the men of heaven at my house;
I should like barrels of peace at their disposal;
I should like vessels of charity for distribution;
I should like for them cellars of mercy.
I should like cheerfulness to be in their drinking.
I should like Jesus to be there among them.
I should like the three Marys of illustrious renown to be with us.
I should like the people of heaven, the poor, to be gathered around us from all parts.

8) Pay attention to the prophets: During the last two decades of his life Dan’s published work centered on biblical studies with books on the prophets a major focus. There was a ready-made affinity. The prophets of Israel and Dan Berrigan of New York City were God-haunted persons inclined to make gestures that spoke louder than words. They were outraged with injustice, outspoken, often overcome by sorrow and anger for the ways their countrymen ignored divine commandments, abused creation, hated their neighbor, and worshiped almost anything but God.

Dan found that it was through the prophets that the God of mercy, the God of compassion, the God of self-giving love, is most vividly revealed, in contrast to the nightmare god of pitiless condemnations and executions, the great punisher, the everlasting warden of the inferno. As Dan noted in a letter to Robert Ellsberg: “My sense is that God isn’t in any recognizable way self-revealed until 800-500 BCE and the [writings of the] prophets.”

A golden thread running through the books of the prophets, Dan noted, is “a very strong bias in favor of the victim and a very strong sense of judgment of evil structures and those who run them. The prophets and Christ talk about the God who stands at the bottom with the victims and with the ‘widows and orphans’ and witnesses with them in the world, from that terrifying vantage point which is like the bottom of the dry well that Jeremiah was thrown into. That vantage point defines the crime and sin; that point of view of the victim indicts the unjust, the oppressor, the killer, the war maker. And the message is very clear. It’s a very clear indictment of every superpower from Babylon to Washington.”

Asked if he had a favorite prophet, Dan singled out Isaiah: “When Jesus announces who he is in the synagogue, he opens the scroll to Isaiah …. Even apart from that, I would love Isaiah, but knowing Jesus loved him really adds something, too.” It also impressed Dan that Isaiah was part of a community: “We tend to think of the prophets as loners, but that is not true of any of them. All of what went on got in the scroll somehow — somebody listened and somebody took notes. So there was community all over the place, as far as I can judge, and these writings went through many minds and hearts and pens before they arrived in our hands. It’s very good that we at the other end of this tradition are meant to absorb it in community because that’s the way it got started and transmitted.”

Dan devoted a book to his biblical namesake, Daniel, a Jew-in-exile who served the Babylonian king honestly but not unconditionally. When he refused to worship idols as the king commanded, Daniel was thrown into the lions’ den to be eaten alive. Instead he was given divine protection and the next day walked away from the lions unharmed. In the text’s Christian reading, Daniel provides a prophetic sign of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Dan stressed that the prophets give additional evidence, if more were needed, that one need not achieve a state of inner tranquility before engaging in peace work. “The notion that one has to achieve peace of mind before stretching out one’s hand to one’s neighbor,” Dan wrote, “is a distortion of our human experience, and ultimately a dodge of our responsibility. Life is a rollercoaster, and one had better buckle one’s belt and take the trip. This focus on equanimity is actually a narrow-minded, selfish approach to reality dressed up within the language of spirituality…. Open up the book of Jeremiah and you do not find a person looking for inner peace. Jeremiah goes through mountains and valleys. That kind of richness I find very appealing, whereas the kind of spirituality that looks for a flat emotional landscape brought on by the endless search for inner peace and equanimity I find disturbing, a quest that goes nowhere.”

9) Learn to say no, not only to politicians and lawmakers but even to your friends. In 1985, filmmaker Roland Joffé came to Dan’s apartment with a proposal: would he take part in a forthcoming movie about the radical Jesuit missions in eighteenth-century Latin America? The Jesuits, until their communities were destroyed and the Society of Jesus temporarily suppressed, managed to protect the native people from slavery. Through much of the spring and summer of 1985 Dan was in Colombia, Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay for the filming of The Mission, directed by Joffé, written by Robert Bolt and starring Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons, with Liam Neeson in a supporting role. Dan served as an advisor and also played the part of a Jesuit priest, Father Sebastian. Though appearing in many scenes, Dan’s only spoken line, appropriately, was the word “no.”

Dan said no in a wide variety of ways and in many different contexts. Saying no to racism, he was one of those who went to Selma, though most of his anti-racist activity was in the north. He said no to war on a more or less daily basis from his thirties into his nineties. He said no to capital punishment, abortion and euthanasia. He said no to any ideology which justified killing as a method of improving the world. And all this meant on many occasions saying no not to adversaries but to friends and allies.

10) One last lesson: don’t let fear be your mainspring. Dan’s life and choices are full of challenges for each of us. What keeps us from doing what needs to be done? Why do we lead such cautious lives? What keeps us from having a life that in some sense that is shaped by the works of mercy? What keeps us from saying “no” when a “no” is needed? Why do we battle so few dragons? The answer is fear.

One of Thomas Merton’s most important essays, first published in The Catholic Worker in October 1961, explored his insight that the root of war is fear. No reader was more challenged by that essay than Dan. Days later he wrote to Merton. A friendship took root that lasted the rest of Merton’s life.

Little by little you come to realize that it’s not only war that is rooted in fear but also many of the choices we make — where to live, what to study, who to meet and who to avoid, who to vote for, what to see and what to ignore. Our fearfulness,” Dan said, “is our confession of unconvertedness.”

Given the fearless choices Dan made, it is remarkable he lived so long a life and died of old age.

He’s buried side by side with other Jesuits, at the Shrine of the Jesuit Martyrs in Auriesville, near Albany. “We took turns reading from scripture and from Dan’s own works,” Joe Cosgrove, his lawyer, wrote to me after the funeral, “then prayed for those most in need, and wept … Dan’s coffin into the earth. Then the adults took turns shoveling earth over the coffin while the kids played among the gravestones.”

While the Jesuits had prepared a headstone similar to all the others that stood vigil in the cemetery, Carla Berrigan Pittarelli and her husband Marc created a supplementary grave marker that included the few words Dan had once proposed as his epitaph:

“It was never dull, alleluia!”

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Jim Forest’s most recent book is At Play in the Lions’ Den: a biography and memoir of Daniel Berrigan (Orbis Book, 2017). His earlier books include biographies of Thomas Merton (Living With Wisdom) and Dorothy Day (All Is Grace).


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lecture at Fordham 1 May 2018 / draft text as of 15 April 2018

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Conversion, Not Domination: Inga Leonova talks with Jim Forest

From The Wheel, issue 12, Winter 2018 / special issue on War & Christ

Inga Leonova talks with Jim Forest

Thank you, Jim, for speaking to The Wheel about your lifelong advocacy of peacemaking as essential to Christian witness. To begin, perhaps you could talk about the historical understanding of war in the Christian tradition, including the doctrine of Just War, which has found many adherents.

The Just War theory emerged in Western Christianity and never became rooted in Eastern Christianity. Instead, in the East, there is a relatively undeveloped theology that war is sometimes forced on a nation under attack, but is only justified to the extent that the nation is defending itself from invasion. Even then, many restraints were placed on the practice of war. If you examine Byzantine history and theological writings about war, it is striking to see the extent to which war was avoided. Many emperors made compromises and paid huge amounts from the imperial treasury to prevent war. As for a theology of war in the East? There simply is no “Just War” doctrine in the Fathers.

How about Orthodox hymns such as the Troparion for the Cross, which originally read, “Grant victory to the Orthodox emperor over his enemies”? And what about warrior saints? How do you reconcile this part of Orthodox tradition with the exaltation of peace in the Gospel?

Hymns such as the Troparion of the Cross do raise issues. But, of course, victory need not mean military defeat of the enemy. It could mean something more like their conversion to a different attitude toward us—a transformation of their behaviour. I think this is, in fact, the correct way to understand these hymns. Orthodox Christianity is essentially a religion of conversion rather than domination.

As for warrior saints—their Lives are complicated, but also surprising. Take Saint George, the most famous example. On the one hand, we know very little about the historical person, George. He was a martyr, but we can’t say much more. He may not have been an actual solider, but perhaps was a soldier more in the sense that Saint Paul uses military metaphors to describe the ideal Christian life: George had courage, he was armed with truth, his feet were shod with the gospel of peace. It wasn’t until the composition of the Golden Legend in the thirteenth century that the story of battling the dragon emerged. Of course, the historical George never saw a dragon, but again, metaphorically and spiritually he certainly battled dragons: he battled fear and the command of the emperor to make pagan sacrifice. For that reason, the dragon story—though a legend—is inspired and compelling.

In fact, I would say that the life of Saint George is entirely a metaphor of conversion: the saint arrives on a white horse, symbolizing courage; his shield bears the sign of the Cross, showing that he is a soldier of Christ, not of the world; in many icons, he is shown wielding a lance thinner than a pencil—hardly a mighty weapon of war; and he has a dispassionate expression, not a warmongering look. Also, we should remember that he does not kill the dragon but only wounds it, and in many icons the rescued pagan princess is shown putting her girdle around the dragon’s neck and leading it away.

Perhaps we might also think of Saint Alexander Nevsky. Why was he canonized? Because he was victorious in battle? Or because he became a repentant monk and peacemaker who, in a somewhat scandalous way, made compromises with the Golden Horde, which led to a period of peace? It is striking that it was not until the reign of Peter the Great that he was depicted as a military saint. The icons before that time did not show him in this way, but rather as a monk.

So it seems that the exaltation of military might is a matter of subsequent interpretation, necessitated by political circumstances?

Absolutely. It’s a matter of post-mortem militarization—often a very long time after the saint died, as in the case of Saint George and Saint Alexander. We must remember that, in the nineteenth century, the West (including Russia) was swept by a wave of nationalism, and many of these saints were recruited as military heroes for the nationalist cause. I am certain that if we study the lives of the saints and learn to read their hagiography correctly, we will not find a single one who was canonized because of military achievements.

This leads us back to the issue of domination and onward to our contemporary situation. In the last twenty or thirty years, the world has experienced wars waged by and between Orthodox nations. The aggressions of Russia in Georgia and Ukraine, for example, have been shrouded in the pseudo-religious rhetoric of Russkiy Mir (“the Russian World”), which asserts the religious primacy of the Russian church and state over all the Orthodox of Slavic Tradition. What do you think about the relationship between Christianity and nationalism?

The first thing that springs to mind is Saint Paul’s comment that there is “neither Greek nor Jew” (Gal. 3:28). It is so obvious from the New Testament that Christianity is not a national religion. There is no such thing as Russian Orthodoxy, there is only Orthodoxy in the Russian tradition, in the Greek tradition, in the Antiochian tradition, and so forth. To the extent that religion becomes confused with national identity, it is no longer a form of Christianity.

One of the items discussed at the 1917 Moscow Council was whether the Church should be called “The Orthodox Church in Russia” or “The Russian Orthodox Church.” The council fathers chose the latter, which I think is unfortunate, because it gives the impression that Russian identity has primacy over the identity conveyed by the words that follow. “The Orthodox Church in Russia” strikes quite a different tone.

Perhaps the fathers of the Orthodox Church in America had a better ear for language and therefore chose a better name? The OCA was in some ways intended to overcome the diasporic national divisions of the Orthodox in America—but, of course, it hasn’t been entirely successful in that regard.

And, of course, those responsible for securing the OCA’s autocephaly weren’t caught up in national struggles in the same way as the fathers of the Moscow Council. The OCA was named at a time when national identity for Orthodox Christians in America was not a consideration in the same way as for Russians in 1917.

Let’s talk a bit about your own work as a peacemaker. In your seminal essay, “Salt of the Earth,” you lay out a number of aspects of witnessing to Christ’s peace, especially in times of war. For those who are unfamiliar with your work, perhaps you could explain them to us?

Yes. I think there are at least seven aspects of Christian peacemaking. The first is loving our enemies. Here we have to repair a damaged word, because love has been sentimentalized, and the biblical meaning of the word is quite different. Christ calls his followers to love their enemies. If we understand love as a euphoric feeling or pleasurable sentiment, then fulfilling this commandment is impossible. But if we understand love as doing what we can to protect the life and seek the salvation of a person or group whom we fear or hate, then it is very different. An essential aspect of response to that commandment is to pray for our enemies—a thread of daily connection through prayer.

The second aspect is related: doing good to enemies. Jesus teaches his followers, “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you” (Luke 6:27–28). This teaching is often viewed as unrealistic—but, in fact, it is a teaching full of common sense. Unless we want to pave the way to a tragic future, we must search for opportunities to demonstrate to an opponent our longing for an entirely different kind of relationship. An adversary’s time of need or crisis can provide that opening.

The third aspect is turning the other cheek. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “If someone strikes you on the cheek, offer him the other also” (Matt. 5:39). Contrast this with the advice provided in the average film or novel, where the message is often: “If you are hit, hit back. Let your blow be harder than the one you received.” In fact, as we saw in the U.S. attack on Iraq in 2003, you needn’t be hit at all in order to justify striking others. Provocation, irritation, and the fear of attack are warrant enough. Turning the other cheek is often seen as an especially suspect Christian teaching. For a great many people, it seems contrary to natural justice or, at the very least, it isn’t “manly.” Only cowards turn the other cheek, they say. But what cowards actually do is run and hide. Standing in front of a violent person, refusing to get out of the way, takes enormous courage. It’s a way of giving witness to confidence in the reality and power of the resurrection.

The fourth aspect of peacemaking is forgiveness. Nothing is more fundamental to Jesus’ teaching than his call to forgiveness: giving up debts, letting go of grievances, pardoning those who have harmed us, not despairing of the other. Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to forgive us only insofar as we ourselves have extended forgiveness to others. Which of us doesn’t know how much easier it is to ask God to forgive us rather than to extend forgiveness to others? We are wounded and the wounds often last a lifetime. Sins—often quite serious sins—have been committed against us. Others we love have suffered or may even have died through the evil done to them. But we are not only victims. In various ways, we are linked to injuries others have suffered and are suffering. Yet, we are moved to condemn the evils we see in others and to excuse—even justify—the evils we practice ourselves. In fact, we all both need and must offer forgiveness.

The fifth aspect is breaking down the dividing wall of enmity. We live in a world of walls: competition, contempt, repression, racism, nationalism (as we discussed above), violence, domination—all of these are seen as normal. Enmity is ordinary. The self and self-interest form the center point in so many lives. We tend to be fear-driven. Love and the refusal to center one’s life in enmity are dismissed as naive, idealistic, even unpatriotic, especially if one reaches out constructively to hated minorities or national enemies. But we must break down these walls if we want peace.

The sixth aspect is nonviolent resistance to evil. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil” (Matt. 5:38–39). When Peter used violence to defend Jesus, he was instantly admonished: “Put your sword back into its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). For several hundred years following the resurrection, the followers of Jesus were renowned for their refusal to perform military service. But since the state became a patron of Christianity, Christians have been as likely as any other people to take up the sword, and often use it in appalling ways. Refusal to kill others can be a powerful witness, yet Christian life is far more than the avoidance of evil situations. Christians cannot be passive about those events and structures that cause innocent suffering and death. More recently, nonviolent struggle has become a recognized alternative to passivity on the one hand, and to violence on the other.

The last element of peacemaking is aspiring to a life of recognizing Jesus. In his teaching about the Last Judgment, Christ tells us, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40). It is a scene represented in icons and relief carvings in many ancient churches. Looking at such images, occasionally the question is raised: “Why are we judged collectively?” Perhaps it is because each person’s life is far from over when he or she dies. Our acts of love and failures to love continue to have consequences until the end of history. What Adam and Eve did, what Moses did, what Herod did, what Mary the mother of Jesus did, what Pilate did, what the Apostles did . . . what Caesar did, what Hitler did, what Martin Luther King did, what Dorothy Day and Mother Maria Skobtsova did . . . what you and I have done and are doing—all these lives, with their life-giving or death-dealing content, continue to have consequences every single day for the rest of history. What you and I do, and what we fail to do, will have consequences until the end of time.

If I cannot see the face of Jesus in the face of those who are my enemies, if I cannot see him in the unbeautiful, if I cannot see him in those who have the wrong ideas, if I cannot see him in the poor and the defeated, how will I see him in bread and wine, or in life after death? If I do not reach out in this world to those with whom he has identified himself, why do I imagine that I will want to be with him, and them, in heaven? Why would I want to be for all eternity in the company of those whom I hated and avoided every day of my life? Christ’s kingdom would be hell for those who avoided peace and devoted their lives to division. But heaven is right in front of us. At the heart of what Jesus says in every act and parable is this: Now, this minute, we can enter the kingdom of God.

That’s a very powerful mandate. Of your seven aspects of peacemaking, which would you say is the hardest to carry out?

They’re all hard! In the Beatitudes, the first—poverty of spirit—is the most difficult. But without poverty of spirit, the rest do not follow. Without poverty of spirit, you will never have purity of heart, for example. Without poverty of spirit, you will never embrace the Cross. I think it’s the same with my seven aspects of peacemaking: the first, love of enemies, is the hardest. Yet it is foundational to Christianity. And I’m not saying that as someone who finds it easy to love his enemies! I can easily be aroused to the point of wishing that my enemy would suffer and die. It is easy to manipulate my emotional response to enmity. I’m just like anyone else. But I cannot understand the gospel apart from the commandment to love one’s enemies.

It seems to me that love of enemies is a lesson which the Christian Church has struggled to learn and practice throughout history. In each generation, some succeed more than others, some fail more than others. To even want to love an enemy is extremely challenging. But here, the idea that I mentioned above, about de-sentimentalizing the word “love,” is key to beginning to practice this commandment. It has to be understood in the context of a life of conversion: seeking our own conversion, seeking the conversion of others. Our conversions are interconnected. In this way we can begin to grasp its meaning, and have some hope of moving in that direction.

Prayer is essential here, too. Prayer is the beginning of love. To the extent that I can sincerely pray for my enemy and for his or her welfare, enlightenment, peace, health, salvation, I participate in God’s own connection with that person and discover that they are connected with God’s life, just as I am—perhaps even more so. Jesus explicitly links love of enemies with prayer for them. Without prayer, love of enemies is impossible. Saint Silouan of the Holy Mountain put special emphasis on this. He became a monk after nearly killing another young man in his village—in fact, for some minutes he thought he had become a murderer. Not long afterward, he went to Mount Athos. Much of his teaching later in life centered on love of enemies. He insisted that he who does not love his enemies does not have God’s grace.

Right, because when you pray for a person, he or she really becomes a person—and ceases to be an abstract idea or an obstacle to my goals. Prayer contributes to a process of personalization. Speaking of prayer and love in action, you’ve written extensively about Saint Maria (Skobtsova) of Paris, who was a great light during the Second World War. What about her life captured your imagination?

I was brought to the writings of Mother Maria by one of Metropolitan Kallistos Ware’s books, and it seemed to me then that her writings were almost identical with those of Dorothy Day, who played a major role as my own life as my first spiritual mother. She was the founder of the Catholic Worker movement and, although she was a very devout Roman Catholic, she was the first person to bring me into an Orthodox Church.

There are actually tremendous similarities between the lives of Dorothy Day and Mother Maria. In the same year, 1933, they both founded houses of hospitality in major cities: Day in New York and Mother Maria in Paris. Both were committed to what I would call radical hospitality toward those in danger, whether of dying on the streets or being taken away by the police. In Mother Maria’s case, this cost her life, because she took in Jews and did everything possible to save them from the Nazis. Both women were also involved in ecumenical dialogue, especially between Orthodox and Catholics.

In terms of their writings, you could almost take a paragraph from each, scramble the sentences, and play a game to figure out which sentence was written by which woman. It would be impossible to decide unless you already knew the quotations. I was captivated by the sentiment I found in both women, that God is present in every person and must be venerated in each person. Each person is an icon of God. Dorothy Day prepared me to encounter this in Mother Maria.

When one looks at the life of Mother Maria, one sees not only that she was a great theologian—and one must not forget that she was and remains a great theological voice, one of the most important theologians of recent Orthodox history—but also that she had the opportunity to live out her theology. She saw in each person another face of Christ. For these reasons, I have been fascinated by her and her writings, and I am glad to have been able to arrange for the publication of some of her work in English.

Finally, sometimes people say that religion leads to war. This seems to be true of the current “culture wars,” for example. How would you respond to this charge, especially with respect to the militant stance that religious groups often assume in culture wars?

I have tremendous respect for some of the so-called “culture warriors.” David Bentley Hart, for example, is someone whose writings I admire. But the main task for Christians is to bear witness to Christ, who does not kill. The fact that Jesus killed nobody has implications for us. When we see Christianity being leveraged to promote conflict, which can easily lead to war, then we have to say that it is no longer Christianity but an ideology. Unfortunately, Christianity—like all religions—can easily be transformed into an ideology and then become quite deadly.

We Orthodox are too comfortable with what is a quite remarkable phrase, which we use without any resistance: “the precious and life-giving Cross.” When we actually contemplate what that means, it is very difficult to revere the Cross, to want to be on the Cross, to see anything good about the Cross. If we reimagine the Cross as a modern instrument of murder or execution, like a guillotine or an electric chair, then we become more aware of how shocking it is to speak about “the precious and life-giving Cross.”

One of the earliest depictions of the Cross on a Christian building is found on the huge doors of the Church of Santa Sabina in Rome, which date from the fifth century. It is interesting to me that it is not terribly prominent. Christians in Rome at that time clearly weren’t yet ready to embrace “the precious and life-giving Cross”—perhaps because Rome was a place where people had been crucified. It was still shocking. We need to recover that. We need to grasp what it means to worship a God who practiced peace and did not fuel the cycle of war and violence.

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Becoming Peacemakers, a work in progress

by Jim Forest

two-part lecture for the “Voices for Peace” conference in Toronto 28 April 2018 / draft as of 12 April 2018

the images that go with the text are in this folder:

T1 – whole earth photo

Good morning! It’s a big day. We’re gathered together today to talk, think, pray and sing about peacemaking. May our conversations be fruitful.

If you do a lot of thinking on a certain topic — for example war and peace — you tend to translate those thoughts into what you talk about with others, into what you pray and meditate about, into what you read about, and finally into what you do and the way you live. Little by little you cross the border from peace thinker and peace wisher to peace maker. Not that any of us ever fully becomes a peacemaker. It’s always an aspiration — a work in progress. It’s a bridge you’re always crossing without ever arriving at the other side.

T2 – Pogo with sign “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Again and again you crash into the proverb, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Our greedy egos keep getting in the way.

What brought us here today? In my own case, I’ve been thinking about war and peace since I was eight or nine years old. I’m now 76! How surprising it is to have reached such an age. In my twenties I thought it very unlikely that I’d live to be 30. Anticipated cause of death: nuclear war.

Let me tell you about one of the big events of my childhood. It must have been in 1950 or ’51 that two young Japanese women, survivors of the atom bomb that had been dropped on Nagasaki on the 9th of August 1945, arrived in my home town, Red Bank, New Jersey, as house guests of Roger Squire, the local Methodist minister, and his family. A national peace group had arranged for plastic surgeons in New York to treat some of the people who had been burned by the blasts. Thanks to my mother’s occasional attendance at Methodist church services, I saw those two very poised women sitting side-by-side in a pew near the front of the church, their faces hidden behind silk veils.

T3 – Nagasaki ruins

I couldn’t stop staring. Though I had seen a few post-explosion photos of victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, being in sight of these two women brought home to me in a more intimate way than any photograph the human dimension of war, the effects of nuclear weapons, and the fact that the victims of war are rarely those responsible for war. I was also old enough to be aware that taking Japanese victims of America’s atom bombs into one’s home was not something that all Americans would appreciate. In the icy climate of the Cold War, such hospitality required courage. Mr. and Mrs. Squire gave me an early glimpse of what following Christ was all about. They gave witness to the Gospel words, “I was a stranger and you took me in.”

In a sense these two Japanese women were visitors from the future. I was just beginning to read science fiction. The darkest fantasies of science fiction seemed to be unfolding, our world destined to become a radioactive wasteland in which any survivors would envy the dead and most of the achievements of civilization turned to ash and rubble.

T4 – Nevada nuclear bomb test seen from Las Vegas

In the years following my mother’s purchase of our first television set in 1951, one of the occasional “news specials” allowed us to join the live audience witnessing America’s open-air nuclear test explosions. Cameras, television crews, reporters, scientists, observers and military brass were positioned not many miles from the Nevada blast site. Views of the desert test site were interlaced with interviews with generals until the countdown began. Ten nine eight seven six… There was at last the apocalyptic word “zero” followed by a split second of silence, then the screen going white followed by the spectacle of an expanding transparent globe of light and fire that gave birth to a seething column of smoke exploding upward in which a kind of fire never seen before 1945 was rotating within a mushroom cloud.

T5- Nevada nuclear bomb test – blasted house

For one of the tests, buildings had been constructed at varying distances from ground zero, with blast-protected high-speed cameras at strategic points. Soon after the test, television viewers saw in slow motion the blast’s impact on houses not unlike our own. A two-story white clapboard house turned black on its blast-facing side before the shock wave struck. Then the structure, as if made of paper-thin glass, was in a flash turned to fragments while the splinters were catapulted away from ground zero by a wind far beyond hurricane strength.

The nuclear tests were a kind of death notice, a prediction of next week’s weather, an announcement that we were all walking into a blast furnace — not Apocalypse Now but Apocalypse Soon. A popular saying at that grim time was “better dead than red.”

It really is a miracle that we’re here today, survivors of what has almost happened time and again. So many times the world has come within hours and even minutes of nuclear war. To cite just one case, in October 1962, a Russian Navy officer, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov, violating orders and risking his career, if not worse, refused to authorize a Soviet nuclear attack on the USA.

T6 – Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov

The context was the Cuba crisis. Arkhipov was aboard a nuclear-armed Soviet submarine. Three men each had to turn a key. He alone refused to do so. Had he done what the rules obliged him to do, none of us would be here today. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., an advisor to the Kennedy administration, has commented, “This was not only the most dangerous moment of the Cold War. It was the most dangerous moment in human history.” Words cannot express how much we owe to Vasili Arkhipov and others like him who were supposed to turn a key or push the red button but refused to do so.

By the skin of our teeth we have lived with nuclear weapons without their being used in war since 1945 — 73 years. In geological time that’s not even one second, but for human beings 73 years seems close to forever. One begins to get complacent, but complacency about weapons of mass destruction is a dangerous state of mind, like jumping from the top floor of a hundred-story building and thinking half way down that it’s not as dangerous as people say.

We’ve had more than seven decades without nuclear war but these have not been years of peace — rather years of constant war. I won’t list them — it would take too long, but go to Wikipedia, use the search string “wars since 1945,” and see for yourself.

T7 – Wars-in-progress screen

The wars themselves are countable. What no one has an even approximate count of is how many people have been killed or maimed or mentally and spiritually devastated by all these tidal waves of mass violence. Just to single out one, in the decade-long US-segment of the Vietnam War, 1965-1975, the estimate for the dead alone is three million, the great majority of them non-combatants. For the US segment of the war in Afghanistan, the estimate so far is a million dead. Nor has anyone attempted to calculate the catastrophic environmental impact of all these wars. War and war-related industry has been a huge factor in global warming.

In 1961, when I was nineteen, I was peripherally involved in one of the smaller and briefer wars. At the time I was a third-class petty officer in the US Navy, part of a meteorological unit at the US Weather Service in Suitland, Maryland, just outside Washington, DC.

T8 – JF graduating Navy boot camp May 1959

You see me in uniform the spring day in 1959 that I finished boot camp.

The suite of rooms used by our Navy unit included a small television studio that was directly connected to the War Room of the Pentagon. Twice a day one of the officers, standing before a rotating map, presented an overview of weather news for the northern hemisphere, then answered questions from those at the viewing end. During the late winter and early spring of 1961, I was vaguely aware that the questions often had to do with the weather in and around Cuba. I gave the matter little thought. I failed to sense a political earthquake was about to occur.

Only after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion on the 17th of April 1961 did I connect the dots. Despite the initial denial by President Kennedy that the invasion was a US undertaking —initially it was blamed entirely on unaided Cuban exiles — I knew the Navy had played a role in it, including even my tiny unit. The day and timing of beach landings are best planned with an eye on the weather.

T9 – JF Kennedy

To his credit, within days Kennedy reversed his initial denial, regretting what had happened and admitting that the invasion was planned, organized and funded by the CIA with US military involvement. JFK, only a few months into his presidency, had given the invasion its go-ahead.

In that period of my life I was profoundly naïve about the US role in the world. It never occurred to me that my government would undermine or seek to overthrow other governments. “Regime change” was not part of our political vocabulary. I knew nothing about the US role in arranging regime change in Guatemala, Iran and other countries. For all the nation’s flaws and unsolved problems, for all my ideas of how it could be better, I was passionately proud to be an American.

T10 – JFK – screen shot Bay of Pigs

US culpability for the Bay of Pigs invasion hit me like a torpedo. I felt implicated in a collective sin. When I read in The Washington Post that pacifist groups, including the Catholic Worker, were holding a daily silent protest in front of a CIA building in southwest Washington, I made up my mind to take part. It turned out to be a life-changing decision.

T11 – There is no way to peace graphic

After work and out of uniform, I joined twenty or so people carrying placards that bore such texts as “There is no way to peace — peace is the way” and “Nonviolence or Non-survival.” The climate of the silent protest was prayerful. I had no sense that I was putting myself or my job in the Navy at risk. As I say, I was naïve. Freedom of speech, freedom to dissent and freedom to protest peacefully were principles at the core of American identity. I took it for granted that those rights belonged to everyone, those in military service included.

I noticed several men in gray suits on the other side of a fence methodically taking photos of us — it amused me that they were using cameras with long telephoto lenses. No one in the demonstration would have objected to close-up photos. Any of us would have been quite willing to identify ourselves and explain why we were there.

A few days later I was summoned to the office of Captain Cox, our unit’s commanding officer, and found him so angry that his neck muscles were rigid and his hands shook. He had a hard time assembling a sentence. On his desk was a glossy eight-by-ten photo of the demonstration. I was clearly visible. “Is this you?” he asked. “Yes,” I answered. “How dare you! How dare you give support to enemies of the United States?” “I wasn’t supporting any enemies,” I replied, “I was protesting the invasion of Cuba.” Captain Cox was speechless. Previously he and I had enjoyed an excellent relationship, but after that day the only communication we had was when he handed me a letter from the Office of Naval Intelligence ordering me to report for an interview.

In preparation for that meeting I was required to fill out a security questionnaire. One of the questions was: “Is there any circumstance under which you would deem yourself unable to perform the duties which you may be called upon to take?” I read the question with dread, realizing that I could not find a way to give an honest answer that would be acceptable to the Navy.

T12 – Jiminy Cricket – conscience be your guide

Getting back to my base along the Potomac, I went to the Catholic chapel to pray, read the New Testament, and think. I must have remained there until midnight. For months I had been aware that the serious application of Catholicism’s just war doctrine would condemn any modern war if only because noncombatants had become war’s main casualties. Also how could anyone, in or out of the military, promise automatic obedience to each and every future order sight unseen? I thought of the many Germans who justified their obedience to the demonic demands of the Hitler regime with the words: “I was only following orders” or “I was only obeying the law.” I thought of Anne Frank and the Holocaust and all the obedient civilians and soldiers who played a part in herding millions of people to their deaths. But at the same time I was apprehensive about what would happen to me if I failed to commit myself to unqualified obedience? What would my colleagues think? How would they treat me? I was wading in fear, struggling not to drown in it.

I remembered the simple wisdom of a Russian proverb I had memorized as a child while contemplating the Family of Man photo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York: “Eat bread and salt and speak the truth.”

T13 – bread & salt proverb

Those eight words were a breath of fresh air. It was a relief to realize that my task was simply to tell the truth and let the consequences take care of themselves. Finally I composed this four-sentence paragraph:

“I would have to refuse to obey any order or fulfill any duty which I considered to be immoral, contrary to my conscience or in opposition to the teaching of my Church…. It is highly conceivable that there are duties that would be imposed on me during war time which I could not accept. Though I would participate in the actual and just defense of our country, I would not assist in any attack or war effort which necessarily involved the death of innocent non-combatants. I would obey no order in conflict with my convictions.”

There is no need for me to tell the rest of the story in detail, only to say that not many days later, following a long and threatening interview with two officers of the Naval Intelligence Service, I filed for early discharge on the grounds of conscientious objection to war. In early June my discharge was approved. The day that I was “processed out” I was on my way, at Dorothy Day’s invitation, to become part of the Catholic Worker community in New York — a big step that reshaped the rest of my life. I was happy as a falcon in an updraft. Before sunset that same day, I arrived at 175 Chrystie Street, the location in that period of St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality.

T14 – CW 175 Chrystie Street 1961

I had turned a major corner. I had enjoyed my work in at the Weather Service and had appreciated my Navy co-workers, but I had gotten to the point in my religious awakening of wanting the works of mercy rather that the works of war to shape my life.

One of the results of joining the Catholic Worker was spending the most formative segment of my life participating in a community whose day centered mainly on homeless people.

T15 – Dorothy Day portrait

The leader of the community was Dorothy Day, then in her mid-sixties. I couldn’t have chosen a better mentor. If you haven’t yet done so, I urge you to read her autobiography, The Long Loneliness.

In it she relates how she had been radicalized in her teens mainly thanks to her reading. It was Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, that inspired her, at age fifteen, to explore parts of Chicago that most of her neighbors avoided — the slums surrounding the city’s stockyards and slaughterhouses. The novel’s depiction of filth, violence and corruption in the meat industry so shocked its readers that the book is given credit for Congressional passage of tough meat inspection laws, although Sinclair had hoped to stimulate more profound social change. His intention had been, he said, to expose “the inferno of exploitation” endured by factory workers. “I aimed at the public’s heart,” he commented, “and by accident hit it in the stomach.”

But Sinclair’s book reached Dorothy’s heart. She began taking long walks toward the west side of Chicago where the meat yards were. Pushing her brother in his baby carriage, she walked for miles, exploring “interminable gray streets, fascinating in their dreary sameness, past tavern after tavern, where I envisioned such scenes as the Polish wedding party in Sinclair’s story.”

These walks were Dorothy’s first experience of finding beauty in the midst of urban desolation. “There were tiny flower gardens and vegetable patches in the yards,” she recalled. “Often there were rows of corn, stunted but still recognizable, a few tomato plants, and always the vegetables were bordered by flowers, often grateful marigolds, all sizes and shades with their pungent odor.” The drab streets were transfigured by “the odor of geranium leaves, tomato plants, marigolds; the smell of lumber, of tar, of roasting coffee; the smell of good bread and rolls and coffee cake coming from the small German bakeries. Here was enough beauty to satisfy me.”

Walking such streets, she pondered the poor and the workers and felt “that from then on my life was to be linked to theirs, their interests were to be mine: I had received a call, a vocation, a direction in my life.” Her journey led her to become both a radical journalist and a Catholic. In her mid-thirties she became co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement.

Dorothy touched countless lives, mine among them. For me, she was also the bridge to several other life-shaping relationships. Thanks to Dorothy, I began what became an intense relationship with Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and writer, whose autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, had been a factor in my becoming a conscientious objector.

T16 – Thomas Merton

Within a few months Merton became a kind of spiritual parent. In the seven years I knew him, I visited him twice and he sent me more than 60 letters.

Merton had enormous influence of the way my life and work developed, an influence that continues to this day even though it’s now fifty years since his death. There was no other person with whom I had so frequent a correspondence when I was in my twenties.

T17 – Henri Nouwen

One thing always leads to another. Several years after Merton’s death, I had the blessing of meeting Henri Nouwen, a relationship that grew into a deep friendship that lasted until his death in 1996. That relationship began in 1971, when Henri, at the time a complete stranger, called with the invitation to speak about Merton to his students at Yale. He wanted them not just to read Merton books but have some idea what Merton was like as a person. I began going to Yale every year.

T18 – Dan Berrigan and Jim Forest

Another person I first met thanks to Dorothy was Daniel Berrigan, a poet and Jesuit priest. Toward the end of 1961, Dorothy brought me with her to a small gathering with Dan. Dan was then leading a quiet academic life at a small Jesuit college in upstate New York. One couldn’t have imagined that, before the decade was over, Dan would be one of the most prominent opponents of war, have his face on the cover of Time magazine, and spend several months on the FBI’s ten-most-wanted list! It didn’t happen overnight, but Dan and I became friends and until his death just two years ago. My latest book is a biography of him.

Four mentors. Each of them is an icon of protest but each of them approached protest in quite different ways.

T19 – photo of Dorothy’s last arrest

Dorothy’s acts of civil disobedience were simplicity itself — such quiet gestures as sitting on a park bench when law required her to be elsewhere, or taking part with farmworkers in a demonstration that police regarded as illegal.

T20 – nuclear submarine

For Henri, not at all a protester by nature, his going to Selma, Alabama to join in a dangerous protest against racism or quietly standing outside a plant where nuclear-missile-bearing submarines were being made were significant, even brave, acts of witness even, though no civil disobedience was involved.

T21 – Catonsville Nine

In contrast, there was Dan’s theatrical approach — setting draft records set on fire, battering the cones of nuclear missiles with hammers — in which serious jail time was an almost certain consequence.

T21a – Merton & Dan together Nov 1964

Thomas Merton, on the other hand, committed no acts of civil disobedience and spent not a single night of his life in a prison cell, but through his writing  changed the way countless people viewed the world and what it meant to be a human being and a Christian.

The differences among these four remarkable persons remind us that each peacemaker is unique. Each makes a transformative use of his or her temperament, talents, vocation, background and circumstances. Expand the circle of models wider and instance by instance our understanding of peacemaking expands with it. Who is a peacemaker? Anyone who is acting peaceably to protect life and the environment.

T21b – high school dropout cartoon

Let me conclude my part of this morning’s session by confessing my academic shortcomings. I never got past my junior year in high school. The only institution of higher learning I’ve graduated from was the Navy Weather School. It was my intention to get an undergraduate degree — I was all set to attend Berea College in Kentucky — but attending to the war in Vietnam seemed more urgent. I sometimes claim to be a permanent undergraduate at Dorothy Day University but you will not find its address even with the most thorough google search. I sometimes regret that I never had time to attend a university with its own campus and library but I recover quickly from that disappointment, for what God has given me has been attendance of a different sort of academy, an athenaeum of mentors. I’ve benefitted from more than four members of its faculty, not only Dorothy Day, Merton, Henri Nouwen and Dan Berrigan, but these are the four I want to concentrate on today.

There’s an afternoon session coming up in which I hope to talk about seven things I learned from these four remarkable peacemakers.

T22 – whole earth photo

* * * * * * *

Second session…

Start with T22 – whole earth photo

Good afternoon!

Now allow me to shift gears. Instead of talking more about personal events that made the themes of this conference so central in my life, let me instead tell you about what I learned from these four mentors: Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen and Daniel Berrigan.

Let’s start with love:

At the absolute core of Christ’s teaching is the commandment to love God and to love our neighbor, not one or the other but both, with the understanding that our neighbor is whoever is standing in front of us, and that sometimes turns out to be our enemy — someone we would rather avoid, maybe someone we even wish were dead.

T23 – Christ icon

All the people who have helped me see the way ahead in my own life put great stress on love, with a special emphasis on love of enemies.

The key word is love.

“Peacemaking is the work of love,” as Henri put it very simply.

To understand love of others, including love of irritating neighbors and dangerous adversaries and politicians who make our blood boil, you first need to unsentimentalize the word. You have to understand love in its biblical meaning. For Jesus love is not a feeling. Love is not an inebriating emotional high or rejoicing in an intense romantic relationship. Love is how you relate to others, no matter how you happen to be feeling at a particular moment. You don’t stop caring for others  that is, doing what you can to help keep them alive  because you’re tired or don’t feel like it or are having a bad day.

T24 – parent with crying child

Think of an exhausted parent awoken at three in the morning by a crying infant who, even after being held and fed, its diaper changed, carried and stroked and rocked and sung to, refuses to stop crying. It’s not a time when one feels grateful for the child or glad to be a parent. Ignoring irritated feelings, you do what is needed and do it gently and patiently. This is an image of actual love.

Love can get you into serious trouble. One of the profoundly radical ideas that all four of my mentors had in common was that, if you want to work at being a Christian and taking up Christ’s commandment to love, for starters it means not killing anyone, enemies included, and not even in your heart-of-hearts wishing them dead.

T25 – Bethlehem Christmas card

Jesus was not a romantic. He didn’t live in a Christmas-card world. He did not look at the world through rose-colored glasses. He did not lead an insulated life. He was no stranger to enmity. Probably there was no Jew in those days who hadn’t seem a naked man nailed to a cross and slowly dying. From his birth onward, Jesus lived a life of daily proximity to mortal enemies, yet he never threatened or endangered anyone’s life. But that doesn’t mean he was passive.

T26 – Jesus chasing moneychangers out of the Temple

For example he once chased moneychangers out of the Temple in Jerusalem, but the only person’s life he put at risk in doing so was his own. If you see Christ as giving clues regarding the sort of person you would like to become, then not only will you not kill anyone but you will seriously try to love them and even be prepared to die for them. One of Dan Berrigan’s most striking declarations was: “If you want to be a Christian, you had better look good on wood.”

Love doesn’t exclude outrage. Love and outrage are sometimes as woven together as a strand of DNA. Dan’s many acts of civil disobedience were animated by, as he put it “outraged love.” For Dan “outrage” was an adjective; the key word was “love.” Love opens the way for conversion. But outrage without love is a blind alley.

We live in a time when there is far more outrage than love. So many zones in social media are sewers of outrage.

T27 – social media

But love clears the air.

“Our job,” Merton wrote, “is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business. What we are asked to do is to love and this love will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy, if anything can.”

Second point — War is a disease that thrives on death:

The real enemy we’re up against, as St Paul stresses in his letter to the Ephesians, isn’t flesh and blood and can’t be killed with weapons that shed blood. Our real enemy isn’t a particular person or group of people but structures and ideologies that inspire deadly violence, with war itself at the top of the list.

T28 – Catholic Worker front page Oct 1961

In “The Root of War Is Fear,” an essay published in the October 1961 issue of The Catholic Worker, Thomas Merton saw Christians as playing an important role in seeking alternatives to war. At the time, nuclear war seemed around the corner, something that could happen today or tomorrow.

“The duty of the Christian in this crisis,” Merton wrote, “is to strive with all his power and intelligence, with his faith, his hope in Christ, and love for God and man, to do the one task which God has imposed upon us in the world today. That task is to work for the total abolition of war. There can be no question that unless war is abolished the world will remain constantly in a state of madness and desperation in which, because of the immense destructive power of modern weapons, the danger of catastrophe will be imminent and probable at every moment everywhere. Unless we set ourselves immediately to this task, both as individuals and in our political and religious groups, we tend by our very passivity and fatalism to cooperate with the destructive forces that are leading inexorably to war.”

T29 – Dr Strangelove – the War Room

Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film, “Doctor Strangelove, Or How I Learned Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” was a black comedy that was probably a factor in preventing nuclear war in those days.

Merton, Dorothy Day and Dan Berrigan helped me realize that war itself is the main enemy of the human race and of the planet we live on. Peacemakers are engaged in a war against war, with the goal not that war should be made less frequent or less murderous or more humane but that war should be eliminated. War should be made unthinkable. Otherwise all of us are losers. As Merton put it, “There is only one winner in war. The winner is war itself. Not truth, not justice, not liberty, not morality. These are the vanquished.”

Third point — we need to use nonviolent methods:

Seeking a nonviolent future, of necessity the means we use are nonviolent for the methods we use define the ends we achieve. If you plant poison ivy you don’t get a harvest of strawberries. We battle evil as best we can, using nonviolent methods rather than copying the deadly methods of our enemies. As Dr King said, “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the person who wields it. It is a sword that heals.”

T30 – ML King at March on Washington

“What are we to do?” was the core question Merton raised in the pages of The Catholic Worker. In his essay “The Root of War is Fear,” he argued that the Church “must lead the way on the road to the nonviolent settlement of difficulties and toward the gradual abolition of war as the way of settling international or civil disputes. Christians must become active in every possible way, mobilizing all their resources for the fight against war. First of all there is much to be studied, much to be learned. Peace is to be preached, nonviolence is to be explained as a practical method…. Prayer and sacrifice must be used as the most effective spiritual weapons in the war against war, and like all weapons, they must be used with deliberate aim: not just with a vague aspiration for peace and security, but against violence and war. This implies that we are also willing to sacrifice and restrain our own instinct for violence and aggressiveness in our relations with other people…. [The abolition of war] is the great Christian task of our time. Everything else is secondary, for the survival of the human race itself depends upon it. We must at least face this responsibility and do something about it.”

Let’s quietly just take a look at a few images of nonviolent resistance….

T31 – man vs tanks

Sometimes it’s a brave spontaneous action — a Chinese man with a shopping bag stopping a column of tanks.

T32 – nonviolent protest – civil rights picket line

Or it’s a carefully planned demonstration like this picket line against segregation

T33 – nonviolent protest – flowers in gun barrel

Or a symbolic gesture, like this university student putting a flower in a soldier’s rifle barrel.

T34 – Standing Rock

Or not just gathering for a day or two but living on threatened land.

We could spend the day looking at countless similar photos. Nonviolent action is not only changing history but changing us.

Unlikely people often play key roles in history. Thomas Merton, who became one of the most articulate advocates of nonviolence, had become a monk in December 1941 just as many others, his brother John Paul among them, were putting on military uniforms. Merton, who in his early days of monastic life thought he was saying goodbye to the world and all its madnesses, came to see his life as a monk as an ongoing act of implicit nonviolent protest.

T35 – Merton walking the woods

Far from being an escape from the world, Merton wrote, it was through fidelity to his monastic vocation that he was able to take his true part “in all the struggles and sufferings of the world. To adopt a life that is essentially non-assertive, a nonviolent life of humility and peace, is in itself a statement of one’s position…. It is my intention to make my entire life a rejection of, a protest against the crimes and injustices of war and political tyranny which threaten to destroy the whole race of man and the world with him…. By my monastic life and vows I am saying no to all the concentration camps, the aerial bombardments, the staged political trials, the judicial murders, the racial injustices, the economic tyrannies, and the whole socio-economic apparatus which seems geared for nothing but global destruction in spite of all its fair words in favor of peace. I make monastic silence a protest against the lies of politicians, propagandists and agitators, and when I speak it is to deny that my faith and my Church can ever seriously be aligned with these forces of injustice and destruction.”

T36 – Selma march

In slow steps, Henri Nouwen and Dan Berrigan had also decided on nonviolence both as a way of life and a method of combatting social evils. In 1965 Henri and Dan, both as yet strangers to each other and both in the early stages of social engagement, put their lives on the line by going to Selma, Alabama, to join Martin Luther King and eight thousand others in crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, its pavement still bloodstained from the police attack on civil rights demonstrators just two weeks before.

T37 – Dorothy at the park bench sit-in

Dorothy Day, on the other hand, was first drawn to raise a dissenting voice while still in her teens. She was nineteen when she was jailed after taking part in a votes-for-women action in front of the White House and was involved in many acts of nonviolent protest in the decades that followed. My personal favorite action of hers was a quiet gesture made in Manhattan in 1955 when, with a few pacifist friends, she sat on a park bench in front of City Hall rather than participate, as required by law, in a civil defense drill in which the city came to a standstill while everyone was obliged to seek shelter — in subway stations, under classroom desks, in basements — from an imaginary Soviet nuclear attack. A Catholic Worker leaflet declared, “We will not be drilled into fear.” Dorothy saw such rehearsals as making nuclear war seem survivable and even winnable. For her, refusing to take shelter was also “an act of penance” undertaken by an American whose country “had been the first to drop the atom bomb and to make the hydrogen bomb.” From 1961 to 1962, after which no more such drills occurred, Dorothy was repeatedly arrested and jailed for refusing to take shelter. The judge in one instance, himself a Catholic, advised Dorothy to read the Bible. Imposing a thirty-day sentence, he said that those who disobeyed the law were a “heartless bunch of individuals who breathe contempt.”

T38 – napalmed child Vietnam

Thirty days in jail isn’t that much. Nonviolent actions can sometimes be more dramatic and risk greater penalties. Dan Berrigan is best remembered for being one of nine people who burned draft records — files his brother Phil referred to as “death certificates” — as a protest against the Vietnam War and forced participation in it. America’s young men were being given the option of going to war or going to prison. In the course of his long life — he died only two years ago, age 94 — Dan wrote about sixty books of prose and poetry, but his single most famous piece of writing is a two-page text he composed to explain their action. It begins, “Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise. For we are sick at heart. Our hearts give us no rest for thinking of the Land of Burning Children…”

My fourth point — the importance of prayer:

Another core element in the life of my principal mentors was the role of prayer in their lives.

At the Catholic Worker we paused several times each day to pray together using booklets that has been given to us by a Benedictine monastery. Priests such as Dan Berrigan celebrated Mass for the community. Henri celebrated Mass in his apartment and, when students and friends came for a social gathering, started it off with prayer.

One of the Sioux participants in the long-running Standing Rock protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline emphasized how essential prayer was to their activities, adding, “Prayers don’t work in the sense that what you ask for will just be given to you, but when you pray for something, all the tools you need will be presented to you.”

T39 – Rembrandt Emmaus etching

In his etching of the risen Christ being recognized as he breaks bread in the village of Emmaus, Rembrandt makes prayer almost visible.

In his book Peacework, Henri sees prayer as an essential element in the life of any peacemaker. “Prayer,” he writes, “is entering into communion with the One who molded our being in our mother’s womb with love and only love. There, in that first love, lies our true self, a self not made up of the rejections and acceptances of those with whom we live, but solidly rooted in the One who called us into existence. In the house of God we were created. To that house we are called to return. Prayer is the act of returning…. Only by opening ourselves to the language and way of prayer can we cope with the interruptions, demands, and ordinary tasks of life without becoming fragmented and resentful. Prayer — [that is] living in the presence of God — is the most radical peace action we can imagine.”

T40 – bread for the eucharist

Among the great joys of friendship with Dan Berrigan was joining him in the celebration of the Mass. His small apartment became a chapel. The style of our bread-breaking was as simple and graceful in line as a Shaker chair. A prayer for forgiveness was followed by intercession for friends who were ill or in difficulty. Those taking part took turns reading the appointed texts for the day plus perhaps a supplementary reading from a more-or-less modern source. After the readings, silence. Then some reflection on the readings. More silence. Then a simple canon prayer, the prayer of consecration. More silence. Finally, after the unspectacular miracle of consecration, came the sharing in that quiet miracle, and more silence, perhaps some more prayer, and an embrace at the end. Everything we achieved in our struggles to help build a less violent world was founded on this eucharistic bedrock.

I have nearly identical memories of time spent with Henri. I recall the pile of small prayer books behind a chair in his living room at New Haven, ready to distribute when friends assembled. Every social gathering he hosted began with prayer.

T41 – Dorothy Day in prayer

I have never known anyone more disciplined in her spiritual life than Dorothy Day — daily Mass, daily rosary, times of private prayer and intercession each day, weekly confession. How often I saw her on her knees at a nearby parish church or at the chapel at the Catholic Worker farm. I noticed that while praying she often consulted pieces of paper that were tucked into her prayer book. One afternoon, Dorothy having been summoned from the Catholic Worker farm chapel for an urgent phone call, I opened the prayer book she had left on the bench and discovered page after page of names, all written in her careful script, of people, living and dead, for whom she was praying every day. It seemed to me Dorothy prayed as if lives depended on it, and no doubt some did. The physician Robert Coles of the Harvard Medical School credited Dorothy’s prayers with the miraculous cure of his wife. She had been dying of cancer but — to his astonishment and to the bewilderment of her physicians — she recovered. He credited Dorothy for what seemed to him a miracle.

Fifth point — compassion:

When I think back on the huge peace movement that emerged during the Vietnam War, the last period of sustained massive multi-national protest against racism and war, there was a great deal we got right but also some negatives. One of our major problems was a widespread lack of compassion toward our adversaries.

T43 – Vietnam war protest in DC in 1969

My wife recalls a huge demonstration in Washington, DC, in November 1969, the one time in her life that she got tear-gassed. I wasn’t there — I was in prison at the time — but the vivid stories she tells make me feel as if I were present. Hundreds of thousands of protesters, many of them students, brought the city to a standstill. Nixon himself, from the basement of the White House, directed the club-fisted response of the police and the National Guard. It was a great demonstration, an event dramatizing a gap between generations that was widening day by day. The only problem was the climate of derision toward the war’s supporters. One of the popular chants that day was aimed at Vice President Spiro Agnew — “Shave and a haircut, shampoo! Spiro Agnew, fuck you!” The chant was funny for those who sympathized. The only problem was that rude chants like that thickened the walls between the war’s opponents and all those people, millions of them, who had voted for Nixon and Agnew.

Self-righteousness and contempt — these are problems every dissident movement has to struggle with. Are we trying to change people’s minds or, by ridiculing them, to harden them in their anger-driven sentiments?

The problem becomes even more immediate when we look at social media today — or in fact what is often anti-social media in which words and slogans are exchanged like hand grenades. How often what might have become dialogue is instead trashing and shaming each other. The results of such exchanges are never healing or mind-changing.

Merton focused on temptations and spiritual problems that people like myself — people in mass movements — have to struggle with. There is always the danger in any movement, he wrote, of its participants becoming zealots, thus losing contact with their conscience and their own perceptions and instead being carried along by group-defined attitudes and ideology in which critical thought is supplanted by slogans, rhetoric and peer group pressure.

If the flattening influence of slogans and ideology was one problem, Merton found that the absence of compassion crippled many protest actions. Those involved in protest tend to become enraged with those they see as being responsible for injustice and violence and even toward those who uphold the status quo. Without compassion, Merton pointed out, the protester tends to become more and more driven by anger and, far from contributing to anyone’s conversion, can easily become an obstacle to changing the attitudes of others.

T44 – protester offering flower to soldier at anti-war demo

As Merton put it in one letter to me, “We have to have a deep patient compassion for the fears of others, for the fears and irrational mania of those who hate or condemn us…. [These are, after all] the ordinary people, the ones who don’t want war, the ones who get it in the neck, the ones who really want to build a decent new world in which there will not be war and starvation.”

A great many people, Merton pointed out, are irritated or frightened by agitation even when it protests something — militarism, nuclear weapons, social injustice — which objectively endangers them. “[People] do not feel at all threatened by the bomb … but they feel terribly threatened by some … student carrying a placard.”

Without love, especially love of opponents and enemies, no profound transformation ? neither personal nor social ? can occur. As Merton put it in a letter to Dorothy Day, “Persons are not known by intellect alone, not by principles alone, but only by love. It is when we love the other, the enemy, that we obtain from God the key to an understanding of who he is, and who we are. It is only this realization that can open to us the real nature of our duty, and of right action.”

T45 – Peacework book cover

Henri thought along parallel lines. As he wrote in his book Peacework: “I have become increasingly aware of the temptation to focus more on issues than on people. But when our peace work is primarily issue-oriented it easily loses heart and becomes cold, calculating, and very impersonal. When we fight for issues and no longer see concrete people with their unique personalities and histories, competition will dominate compassion and winning the issue may mean losing the people. There are endless problems in the world — poverty, oppression, exploitation, corruption — that urgently beg for solutions. But people are not problems. They smile and cry, work and play, struggle and celebrate. They have names and faces to be remembered.”

Sixth point — seeing:

If anyone was a teacher of seeing it was Henri Nouwen. Henri was one of the people — Merton and Dorothy were others — who opened my eyes to icons, Christianity’s primary art form in the Church, east and west, during the first fourteen or fifteen centuries, and still the main art form of eastern Christianity. As a young adult I had viewed icons simply as the church’s kindergarten art, not to be compared with the masterpieces of the Renaissance. Slowly I began to realize that icons are a school of seeing.

T46 – Rublev Holy Trinity icon

A turning point in my appreciation of icons was the gift Henri gave Nancy and me when we were married — a reproduction of the so-called “Holy Trinity” icon painted by the monk Andrei Rublev in the sixteenth century.

I vividly recall sitting at Henri’s side as he explored, with childlike enthusiasm, the icon’s every detail. It was, he explained, inspired by Abraham and Sara’s hospitality to the mysterious guests they received under the oak of Mamre, a story told in Genesis. Throughout the Genesis account, the three angelic guests act in perfect unity and speak with one voice. They are both guests, plural, and also guest, singular; they are both one and three. It’s the first biblical hint of the Holy Trinity. Henri remarked on the utterly submissive, sister-like faces of the three angelic figures, each inclined toward the other in a silent dialogue of self-giving love. He commented on their profound stillness, yet their warmth and vitality. Then we looked at the colors Andrei Rublev had chosen, though I later discovered that even the best reproduction can only hint at what Rublev had actually achieved, as I was to see for myself when I first visited the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Henri traced the circle of perfect unity that subtly, invisibly contains the three angels. Then he traced a cross within the circle and then the trinitarian triangle it also contained. All this quiet geometry reveals key elements of the icon’s theology, yet none of it is heavy-handed. Then there is the table around which the three figures are placed — the eucharistic altar with golden chalice. Above the three figures are three objects: a house with an open door, a tree, and a mountain. The open-doored building on the upper left is both the Church and a house of hospitality. For Henri the Holy Trinity icon was an icon of “the house of love” — the Church as God intends it to be, the doors of which are never closed and which have no locks. The tree in the center is the Tree of Life and also the Life-giving Cross. The mountain is the both Mount Sinai and the Mount of the Beatitudes. Really seeing the icon reveals the communion of love which is at the heart of God’s unity.

T47 – Van Gogh – Night Café

I also recall being with Henri at the art museum at Yale and looking with him at a Van Gogh painting, “The Night Café,” a place he frequented in Arles. Henri’s acute attentiveness to this study of nightlife in a small town was contagious. He was so open to the painting, so wide-eyed, that he made me look at it more slowly. The painting’s beauty became a sacramental reality. But to get to that graced place one has to do much more than glance.

For Henri one of life’s most important questions was: “What do we really choose to see?” Who we see and who we fail to see marks the border of both our spiritual and political life.

T48 – refugee children

In his book Behold the Beauty of the Lord, Henri stresses that it is a matter of enormous importance what we look at and how we look at it. He writes:

“It makes a great difference whether we see a flower or a snake, a gentle smile or menacing teeth, a dancing couple or a hostile crowd. We do have a choice. Just as we are responsible for what we eat, so we are responsible for what we see. It is easy to become a victim of the vast array of visual stimuli surrounding us. The ‘powers and principalities’ control many of our daily images. Posters, billboards, television, videos, movies and store windows continuously assault our eyes and inscribe their images upon our memories. We do not have to be passive victims of a world that wants to entertain and distract us. We can make decisions and choices. A spiritual life in the midst of our energy-draining society requires us to take conscious steps to safeguard that inner space where we can keep our eyes fixed on the beauty of the Lord.”

T49 – beggar

Henri proposed a theology of seeing, or of gazing. Gazing was the verb he preferred. To really see something, to see with deep attentiveness, to become aware of its mystery and beauty — this puts it in a truly awake state. This is most important when we are looking at a human face. It is not that often that we really look at each other. Henri appreciated what St John Chrysostom said in a sermon on the eucharist: “If you fail to recognize Christ in the beggar outside the church, you will not find him in the chalice.”

T50 – slums lower east side

Dorothy Day also had a talent for seeing what many others overlooked. I recall an experience I had with Dorothy when she was in her early sixties.  Her knees were troubling her — she was having increasing trouble climbing the five flights to her apartment on Spring Street. A small apartment in a similar tenement on Ridge Street was rented for her. It was only one flight up but was in appalling condition. A friend and I went down to clean and paint the two rooms. We dragged box after box of debris down to the street, many layers of wallpaper and linoleum and lots of trash, including what seemed to us a hideous painting of the Holy Family — Mary, Joseph and Jesus rendered in a few bright colors against a grey background on a piece of plywood. We shook our heads, deposited it in the rubbish along the curb, and went back to our labor. Not long after Dorothy arrived, the painting in hand. “Look what I found! The Holy Family! It’s a providential sign, a blessing.” She put it on the mantle of the apartment’s bricked-up fireplace. Looking at it again, this time I saw it was a work of love. While this primitive icon was no masterpiece, the ardent faith of its maker shined through. It had a certain beauty. But I wouldn’t have seen it if Dorothy hadn’t seen it first.

T51 – Christ of the breadlines – Eichenberg

Dorothy’s view was no longer that of so many people she knew who regarded the poor as shiftless and worthless, whose sufferings were no one’s fault but their own. Walking such streets as a fifteen-year-old, she pondered the poor and the workers and felt “that from then on my life was to be linked to theirs, their interests were to be mine: I had received a call, a vocation, a direction in my life.”

A seventh and final point. Let me say something about detachment:

Ironically, the harder we try to be effective in our work, the more important it becomes not to over-identify ourselves with our work and its achievements.

T52 – cathedral construction

You need a cathedral builder’s frame of mind. Churches like Notre Dame and Chartres took a long time to build. The first generation saw little more than the laying of the foundations. Sometimes there were fires or towers collapsed and much of the work had to be done over. It was the grandchildren or great grandchildren who got to take part in constructing the roof.

Here’s how Merton put it in a letter to me, written at a time when he was aware I was on the edge of total burn-out:

“Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.

T53 – medieval image of cathedral construction

“You are fed up with words, and I don’t blame you. I am nauseated by them sometimes. I am also, to tell the truth, nauseated by ideals and with causes. This sounds like heresy, but I think you will understand what I mean. It is so easy to get engrossed with ideas and slogans and myths that in the end one is left holding the bag, empty, with no trace of meaning left in it. And then the temptation is to yell louder than ever in order to make the meaning be there again by magic. Going through this kind of reaction helps you to guard against this. Your system is complaining of too much verbalizing, and it is right.

“The big results are not in your hands or mine, but they suddenly happen, and we can share in them; but there is no point in building our lives on this personal satisfaction, which may be denied us and which after all is not that important.

“The next step in the process is for you to see that your own thinking about what you are doing is crucially important. You are probably striving to build yourself an identity in your work, out of your work and your witness. You are using it, so to speak, to protect yourself against nothingness, annihilation. That is not the right use of your work. All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love. Think of this more, and gradually you will be free from the need to prove yourself, and you can be more open to the power that will work through you without your knowing it.

T54 – whole earth photo

Summing up, Merton added:

“The great thing after all is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth: and we turn the best things into myths. If you can get free from the domination of causes and just serve Christ’s truth, you will be able to do more and will be less crushed by the inevitable disappointments. Because I see nothing whatever in sight but much disappointment, frustration and confusion …. The real hope, then, is not in something we think we can do but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see. If we can do His will, we will be helping in this process. But we will not necessarily know all about it beforehand….”

To which I can only add, “Amen.”

* * *

For the presentation of Leven met Wijsheid, the Dutch translation of Living with Wisdom

For the presentation 24 March 2018, at Koningshoeven Abbey in North Brabant, of Leven met wijsheid, the Dutch translation of Living with Wisdom:


There have been a number of editions in various languages of my biographies of Thomas Merton but none has pleased me so much as the translation of Living with Wisdom into Leven met wijsheid. The reason is that, although I speak Dutch poorly, the Dutch-speaking region of Europe has become my much-appreciated home. I have been here forty-one years, well over half my life. Living a few centimeters above sea level in North Holland, so close to the North Sea that I can get to its shore by bicycle in less than an hour, was not a destiny I ever imagined for myself as a child studying globes and world maps and gazing at photos in National Geographic magazine. This land of polders, canals and sand dunes was not one of the environments that attracted me as a boy. My fantasies were of someday living in France, Italy, Spain, Greece or Great Britain, not the flat water-soaked delta that divine providence brought me to in 1977.

I came here to lead the staff of a Dutch-based peace organization, the International Fellowship of Reconciliation. For twelve years working for IFOR was my more-than-fulltime employment. By 1988, when I shifted to work as a writer and editor, our family had taken root in the Lowlands. In 1995, Nancy and I became Dutch citizens. In both our cases, it was a return to parts of our family roots. Nancy’s paternal grandparents had been born in Gelderland while one of my ancestors, Hendrik Hendrickson, was born in Utrecht in the late sixteenth century. Hendrickson was my mother’s maiden name and is my middle name. According to family legend, Hendrik Hendrickson was navigator of the Dutch ship, the Halve Maen, that sailed up the Hudson River in 1609. Later on he settled in Nieuw Amsterdam. His house stood next to the settlement’s wall at the southeast corner of what today is the intersection of Broadway and Wall Street. Probably it’s a great blessing we don’t still own that parcel of land. The New Testament doesn’t recommend wealth.

Thomas Merton moved with me to the Netherlands. He had become one of the major influences in my life since first reading The Seven Storey Mountain when I was eighteen. Though by necessity I had to leave quite a few books in America when I flew to Amsterdam, not one fragment of my Merton library was abandoned.

The work I was doing occasionally brought me to London, where I made it a habit to spend a little time during each visit at a remarkably beautiful and hospitable church, Westminster Cathedral. I loved its Byzantine mosaic decoration and its huge Stations of the Cross that had been carved by Eric Gill during the First World War. I loved its sung Masses. I loved its kindness to homeless street people. I also loved it as a place to confess my sins. There was no language barrier to navigate and there seemed to be a priest available in .one of the confessionals no matter the day or the hour.

One of the things one found in the adjacent cathedral bookshop was a rack full of booklets published by the Catholic Truth Society. These were inexpensive, well-written tracts on a wide variety of subjects — theology, liturgy, prayer, the sacraments, religious history and other topics. A good many were short biographies of saints or notable Catholics. Noticing that there was no booklet devoted to Thomas Merton, in 1978 or ’79 I decided to contact the Society’s editor, Brendan Walsh, and volunteer to fill the gap.

I felt reasonably well-suited to the task. I had been one of Merton’s frequent correspondents and occasional visitors the last seven years of his life, and I was a journalist as well. And it wasn’t, after all, a major undertaking. Most of the Society’s booklets were pocket-sized and brief — 24 to 32 pages — roughly two thousand words. So it was agreed. I was even offered a payment — fifty pounds on delivery, as I recall. As my salary was quite meagre, this made the project even more attractive.

And so I set to work. The only problem was that before I had gotten past Merton’s teenage years, I had already written at least a thousand words. I found myself trying to fit a Frisian cow into a confessional. I wrote to Brendan and raised a question: How about publishing a small book instead of a booklet? And, thinking like the lover of photography that I am, including some photos? I proposed as the title Thomas Merton: A Pictorial Biography.

Happily Brendan’s answer was a cheerful yes.

Then came the idea of making the book a trans-Atlantic project with a co-published edition in America. Don Brophy at Paulist Press quickly took to the idea and even suggested the book be designed by Emil Antonucci, whose work with Jubilee magazine, Commonweal and many publications by Merton’s close friend, Bob Lax, I greatly admired.

Meanwhile I had work to do. I recall with pleasure many nights, after the children had gone to bed, banging away on my beloved Hermes portable. “Banging” is indeed the word — even Swiss typewriters are noisy tools! I used the kitchen counter as my desk as it was the furthest point in the apartment from the kids’ room. They needed their sleep. Volumes of Merton were spread out left and right in that cramped space.

Thomas Merton: A Pictorial Biograph, my very first book, was published in the Fall of 1980. Exactly a hundred pages long, it offered the reader a compact overview of Merton’s life and was enriched by many marginal quotations from his writings. In mid-December I had the honor of presenting a copy to Pope John Paul II and was surprised to discover how familiar he was with Merton’s writing, thanks to Polish translations issued by John Paul’s own publisher. On that occasion I was accompanying my friend and colleague Adolfo Perez Esquivel who a few days before had received the Nobel Peace Prize for his human rights leadership in Latin America. It had been Adolfo’s decision to give John Paul this gift. He told the pope of the important role Merton had played in his own spiritual formation.

That first book marked a turning point in my life, launching me into a late vocation as a writer. Since 1980, there have been more than twenty books — books on the basic teachings of Jesus, religious imagery and iconography, pilgrimage, confession, and overcoming enmity. There have been two books on religious life in Soviet Russia in the USSR’s last few years, and a book on the resurrection of religious life in post-Communist Albania. I’ve also written two other biographies, one of Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day and one about Daniel Berrigan. Not least, there have been five children’s books.

In 1989, after the Paulist edition of the Merton biography had gone out of print, Robert Ellsberg of Orbis Books suggested I write a new, expanded edition. The content was so changed that the book got a new title, Living with Wisdom. And then, in 2008, a revised and substantially enlarged edition of Living with Wisdom was issued by Orbis that drew on Merton’s hitherto closed private journals and correspondence. It’s the Dutch translation of this third edition we’re celebrating today, a book that would not exist had it not been for the Dutch-Flemish Merton society, Mertonvrienden, and especially Willy Eurlings, who may now know the book better than I do. Married as I am to a translator and counting a number of translators among our friends, I know what a special skill good translation is. It’s a fortunate author whose work is converted into another language by the right person.

Meanwhile I’ve had one more Merton book to write, The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers. Published two years ago, it focuses on the contribution Merton made during his last decade in helping prevent nuclear war, articulating a theology and praxis of peacemaking, and giving spiritual guidance to peace activists like myself.

To sum up: The major goal of my several Merton biographies has been to present a reasonably complete portrait of a complex, multifaceted and yet integrated man. His engagements and interests, not to mention his talents, were so numerous: writer, poet, monk, hermit, artist, photographer, teacher, scholar, translator, correspondent, journal keeper, editor, friend, spiritual guide, environmentalist, explorer of other religious traditions, monastic beatnik, voice of socially engaged Christianity, and mystic… And this is not a complete list. The challenge has been to try to show how all these strands are woven into a harmonious whole and at the same time allow Merton to speak for himself.

Though Merton is now half a century in his grave, his writings remain fresher and more timely than today’s newspaper. My sense is Merton is someone many Dutch readers will find worthwhile and challenging.

Willy Eurlings asked me to add to these remarks some comments about how I cme to meet Merton and what were my first impressions.

It was thanks to Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, that I came into personal contact with Merton. Knowing I had read several Merton books, Dorothy began to share with me the occasional letters she received from him. One day in the summer of 1961 she gave me a letter of his to answer. He had sent her a poem about Auschwitz and the Holocaust, “Chant to Be Used Around a Site for Furnaces.” Dorothy asked me to write to Father Louis, as she called him, letting him know of our appreciation of the poem and our plans to publish it in the next issue of The Catholic Worker. A few weeks later, she received another submission, this time an expanded version of a chapter, “The Root of War is Fear,” from the book he was then writing, New Seeds of Contemplation. It was an impassioned anti-war essay that, once in print, got Merton into a great deal of trouble within his order. Once again, Dorothy asked me to respond, letting Merton know it would be in our October issue.

Not many days later I had a response from Merton in which he noted that we live in a time of war and the need “to shut up and be humble and stay put and trust in God and hope for a peace that we can use for the good of our souls.” This proved to be the beginning of an intense correspondence between us that lasted the rest of Merton’s life.

In December, Merton suggested that perhaps I would like to come to the monastery for a visit. Traveling by thumb, a co-worker, Bob Kaye, and I set off for Kentucky early in February 1962. The going was slow. I recall standing in nighttime sleet at the side of a highway somewhere in Pennsylvania watching cars and trucks rush past, many of them with colorful plastic statues of an open-armed Jesus of the Sacred Heart on the dashboard. Sadly, this image of divine hospitality seemed to have little influence on those at the wheel behind the statue. It took us two-and-a-half exhausting days to travel the thousand miles to the Abbey of Gethsemani.

Finally we reached the monastery. After the Guest Master, Father Francis, showed us our rooms, my first stop was the monastery church, but my prayer was cut short by the sound of distant laughter so intense and pervasive that I couldn’t resist looking for its source. Laughter was the last thing I expected to hear at a penitential Trappist monastery.

The origin, I discovered, was Bob Kaye’s room. As I opened the door the laughter was still going on. The main source was the red-faced monk lying on the floor, wearing black and white robes and a broad leather belt, his knees in the air, hands clutching his belly. Though more well-fed than the broomstick thin Trappist monk I had imagined, I realized instantly that the man on the floor laughing with such abandon must be Thomas Merton. His face reminded me of photos of Pablo Picasso. The inspiration for the laughter? It proved to be the intensely smell of unwashed feet that had been kept in shoes all the way from the Manhattan to Gethsemani and were now out in the open air. If the Catholic Worker had manufactured a perfume, this would have been it.

After that week-long stay at Gethsemani, The Seven Storey Mountain became a different book. No wonder that Merton had twice mentioned the films of Charlie Chaplin in its pages.

The abbot, Dom James, though a most hospitable man, was not initially quite so positive about a visitation of ragged Catholic Workers. In those days most American men had frequent haircuts, but, as far as Bob and I were concerned, haircuts were a massive waste of money. Merton apologetically explained that our shaggy hair did not please the abbot. If we were to stay on at the abbey, Dom James insisted we have haircuts. Merton hoped we wouldn’t object. No problem, we replied. On our second morning at the abbey, we took it in turns to sit in a chair in the basement room where the novices changed into their work clothes. The room also served as a barber shop. While the novices stood in a circle laughing, a good deal of hair fell to the concrete floor. Going from one extreme to the other, Bob and I were suddenly nearly as bald as apples.

Not every monk appreciated Merton, I discovered. Merton and I were walking down a corridor that linked the guest house kitchen to the basement of the main building. There was a point in the corridor where it made a turn, and standing there, next to a garbage container, was an older monk, Father Raymond, who was not so much reading as glaring at the latest Catholic Worker, which he held open at arm’s length as if the paper might be toxic. There was an article of Merton’s in it, an; essays about the urgency of taking steps to prevent nuclear war. Father Raymond looked up, saw us coming his way, balled the paper up in his fist, hurled it into the garbage container, and strode away without a word, leaving a trail of smoke.

One evening a day or two after our arrival later when Merton knocked on my door. He was on his way to Vespers and already had on the heavy white woolen choir robe the monks wore during winter months while in church. It was an impressive garment. I reached out to feel it thickness and density. In a flash Merton slid out of it and placed it over my head. I was astonished at how heavy it was! Once again, Merton laughed. The robe met a practical need, he explained, as it was hardly warmer in the church than it was outside. Without it, the monks would freeze to death.

The guest master knew I was at the monastery at Merton’s invitation and thought I might be able to answer a question which puzzled him. “How did Father Louis write all those books?”

I had no idea, no more than he, but I got a glimpse of an answer before my stay was over. A friend at the Catholic Worker had sent a letter to Merton in my care. He urged Merton to leave the monastery and do something “more relevant,” such as join a Catholic Worker community. (Over the years Merton received quite a few letters telling him that he was in the wrong place.) I was a little embarrassed to be delivering such a message.

What is most memorable to me about this particular letter was the experience of watching Merton the writer at work. He had a small office just outside the classroom where he taught the novices. On his desk was a large gray typewriter. He inserted a piece of monastery stationery and wrote a reply that seemed to issue from the typewriter at the speed of light. I had never seen anyone write so quickly. You will often see a stenographer type at such speed when copying a text, but even in a city news room one rarely sees anyone writing at a similar pace.

I wish I had made a copy of his response. I recall Merton admitted that there was much to reform in monasteries and that monastic life was not a vocation to which God called many people, yet he gave an explanation of why he thought the monastic life was nonetheless an authentic Christian vocation and how crucial it was for him to remain faithful to what God had called him to. It was a very solid, carefully reasoned letter, filling one side of a sheet of paper, and was written in just a few minutes.

When I first met Merton, more than two years had passed since the Vatican’s denial of his request to move to another monastery where he might live in greater solitude. By the time of my visit, he was able to spend part of his time in a newly built cinderblock building that stood on the edge of the woods about a mile north of the monastery. It had initially been intended as a conference center where Merton could meet with non-Catholic visitors, but he saw it primarily as his hermitage. Merton had lit the first fire in the fireplace just two months before. There was a small bedroom behind the main room. Merton occasionally had permission to stay overnight, but it would not be until the summer of 1965 that he became a fulltime hermit.

Our visited ended abruptly. A week after our arrival, a telegram came from New York with the news that President Kennedy had announced the resumption of atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, thus another escalation of the Cold War and yet another indication that nuclear war might well occur in the coming years. Anticipating such a decision, I was part of a group of New Yorkers who had planned to take part in an act of civil disobedience, a sit-in at the entrance to the Manhattan office of the Atomic Energy Commission, the federal agency responsible for making and testing nuclear weapons. The abbot provided money for our return to New York by bus. Not many days later, now with a slight stubble of hair, I was in a New York City jail known locally as “The Tombs.”

Merton played a part even in that event. I recall a letter from him, sent care of the Catholic Worker, being hand delivered to me during the hour or two that we sat on the frigid pavement awaiting arrest. (My monastic haircut made me interesting enough to be featured on the front page of one New York newspaper the following morning.)

* * *

photos of the abbey and the book presentation are in this album:

Leven met wijsheid - Dutch translation of Living With Wisdom


Pilgrim to Jerusalem

Pascha at the Resurrection Church in Jerusalem

[an extract from The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Books]

By Jim Forest

The oldest and most important pilgrimage center for Christians is Jerusalem. Despite all its sorrows, Jerusalem remains a city crowded with thin places, chief of which is the Church of the Resurrection, as it is called by Orthodox Christians; or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, as it is known to Christians of other traditions.

Pilgrims often find themselves unready once they arrive, no matter how much preparation they have been made. Standing at the door of the Church of the Resurrection, many pilgrims are in a state of exhaustion and irritation rather than astonishment and exaltation. They have endured the wear and tear of simply arriving only to meet the obstacle of slow-moving lines once inside the church. Many pilgrims find themselves struggling to lay aside all their frayed nerves as they attempt to focus their thoughts on what happened there two millennia ago. After all this hard work, the pilgrim may not be in a receptive state. On top of that, there may be the disappointment of what time has done to such a place. Nothing inside the Church of the Resurrection looks anything like it did twenty centuries ago.

For most pilgrims stepping into that dimly lit, time-worn church, the first stop is the chapel on Golgotha, where Jesus gave up his life on the cross.

The Golgotha chapel, reached by ascending a narrow stone staircase just inside the main entrance, is dominated by a life-sized icon of Christ on the cross in front of which is a marble altar standing on four thin pillars. Dozens of candles burn constantly while numerous ornate silver lamps, large and small, hang from the ceiling. Glass panels on either side of the altar reveal the rough stone surface on which the cross was erected outside the city walls that stood nearby in the days of Roman occupation. (Following the city’s destruction in 70 AD, Jerusalem was rebuilt within new walls, at which time the western wall was moved further west, enclosing Golgotha.)

Cluttered as it is with pre-Reformation religious imagery, this chapel can be a disconcerting place for Protestant visitors. They may also be disconcerted to witness the physical veneration exhibited by pilgrims belonging to the older churches. Yet once inside the chapel, the most undemonstrative visitor tends to be moved by the climate of quiet, heartfelt devotion shown by pilgrims from the more ancient churches. Even a tourist with a head full of religious doubts may feel obliged to speak in a whisper. Visitors who regard the resurrection as nothing more than a pious legend may be moved by the realization that here, on this very spot, a man who had harmed no one — a man of mercy and healing — was stripped, nailed to a cross, and left to die while soldiers threw dice to determine who would take possession of his blood-stained robe. Nearly all visitors kneel in front of the altar, then reach through an opening in the marble floor to touch the rock of Golgotha.

Another significant resonance for this place is the tradition that Adam and Eve were buried at Golgotha, the very place where Christ was later crucified. In any icon of the Byzantine tradition, Adam’s skull appears in a tiny black cave just under the foot of the cross.

Leaving the Golgotha chapel, most pilgrims stop at the place where, according to Christian memory, Christ’s body was laid out before burial. The stone tablet set into the floor, placed there many centuries ago and now as smooth as silk, has received not only millions of kisses but also a river of tears and a nearly constant flow of perfume, the latter poured mainly by women pilgrims. Each day brings many hundreds of mourners who pause at this small area just inside the church’s main entrance. The pilgrims among them know the significance of this rectangle of stone on which no one steps, while tourists are mainly puzzled and perhaps embarrassed by the intense emotion they see displayed by the people kneeling there.

The next stop for pilgrim and tourist alike is the tomb in which Christ rose from the dead. It’s about thirty meters west of the Golgotha chapel and directly beneath the church’s main dome.

When Jesus was crucified, this was the Garden of Golgotha, full of olive trees and flowering plants. Many people were buried here. What was once a small and ordinary burial place — a simple niche chiseled out of a stone embankment, one among many — has become an elaborately carved, chapel-like structure. The surrounding embankment and the adjacent tombs have been completely cut away since the fourth century.

To accommodate pilgrims, Christ’s tomb has been made larger than it was. The structure encasing the tomb — called the Aedicula — now has within it both an outer and inner room, the latter with the narrow shelf, now covered with a thin sheet of marble, on which Christ’s body was laid.

Worn nerves and aching feet notwithstanding, pilgrims always find it a blessing to enter this constricted enclosure. At the very least, the Gospel accounts of the mystery of Christ’ triumph over death become more real. It probably crosses even the atheist visitor’s mind that what occurred here may not be merely an ancient fable. Something happened in this small space that every subsequent generation has had to consider — a mysterious event that has shifted culture and history and even altered the way we look at each other. The place of the resurrection continuously attracts people from near and far, touches both intellect and heart, providing a summons to live the rest of one’s life the freedom that comes from no longer dreading death.

The Church of the Resurrection is more than an enclosure for two sacred places. The pilgrim who has time will discover many unexpected surprises by wandering alone through this maze-like church.

One of my most memorable experiences inside this ancient church occurred during Easter in 1985. How fortunate I was! It’s all but impossible to get inside the Church of the Resurrection on Pascha. One must have an invitation. Providentially, George Hintlian, a leader of Jerusalem’s Armenian Christian community, had given me one. It was a precious gift. Each of the several Christian communities in Jerusalem is allotted only so many. Once the guests are inside the church, the doors are locked and bolted. The area immediately around the tomb is densely crowded.

At a certain moment the Patriarch of Jerusalem, having entered the tomb and been locked inside, lights the “holy fire.” Flame bursts out of the tomb’s small windows. The sealed doors are opened, and the Patriarch comes out bearing two candles which are then used to light the candles everyone holds. Few people hold only one; more often each holds ten or twelve. Each candle will later become a gift to a friend or relative who couldn’t be present. Meanwhile, guests utter cries of joy not unlike those one might hear in a crowded sports stadium at the moment a winning point is scored in a crucial game. As at a sports match, some exultant young men ride on the shoulders of friends. It’s an amazing sight. The space around the tomb quickly becomes hot from the proximity of so many people. So many living flames — so many people packed so tightly! Those who suffer from claustrophobia may find it slightly terrifying.

During the hours when we were locked inside the church, I twice retreated from the crowd to empty areas away from the tomb.

First I went back to Golgotha. How strange it is to be at a place normally crowded with pilgrims and to be the only one there. It is a rare blessing to be entirely alone at the exact spot where Christ gave himself for the life of the world.

On my second walk away from the tumult surrounding the tomb, I went as far as the east end of the Church. Walking down the stairway to St. Helena’s Chapel and from there to another deeper level, I entered the Chapel of the Discovery of the Cross.

While all visitors to the church visit the place of the crucifixion and the tomb in which Christ’s body was laid, far fewer visit this remote corner. Many visitors don’t have time. People often travel long and far to reach Jerusalem and then face a tight schedule once they arrive. As a result, they see relatively little of this huge, somewhat chaotic, ancient building with its many passageways, staircases, chapels and places of veneration. In fact, many Protestant tour groups, suspicious of relics and uncomfortable with devotion to saints, intentionally avoid this subterranean chapel. “The true cross? Found here?” one may hear a visitor say. “Hogwash! All these so-called relics! It was a hoax — just some old wood in the ground passed off as the real thing by swindlers.”

The pilgrim descends via a stone staircase. Step by step the air gets cooler and damper. One goes slowly, perhaps pausing to notice the carefully carved graffiti on the walls left by the pilgrims of earlier eras. Finally the pilgrim reaches an exceptionally quiet, womb-like area beneath the huge church.

There is something remarkable about the special quietness of this deep, damp chapel. Even when there is a steady stream of people coming and going, it seems to absorb and muffle every sound. The unhurried visitor can feel a numinous quality here that may be harder to experience in places where people are waiting in slow-moving lines. In a subterranean enclosure entirely abandoned at Easter, I found myself more aware of the risen Christ than when I stood outside his tomb. An ancient garbage pit has become the thinnest of thin places.

I was also aware of being in the footsteps of St. Helena, whose pilgrim journey in the year 326 inspired the discovery of the cross. Twenty years later, St. Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem, declared, “[The Cross] has been distributed fragment by fragment from this spot and already has nearly filled all the world.”

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